“On the count of three you'll open your eyes and find yourself in a different place, one two three. Open your eyes.”
Nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film at the 2010 Academy Awards, the outstanding Israeli film Ajami makes clear the human cost of decades of political and military strife between Jews and Arabs. Set in the neighborhood of Ajami in Jaffa, Israel, there is a seemingly impassible divide between Jews, Christian, and Muslims whose daily life offers no escape from the realities of poverty, violence, and oppression. In Ajami, there are no heroes and no villains. Each religious and ethnic community is trapped in the same tunnel searching for a speck of light.
Shot on location using mostly non-professional actors including neighborhood recruits, directors Yaron Shani (an Israeli), Scandor Copti (a Palestinian), in their first feature, capture the look and feel of a community in disarray with such remarkable detail and raw urgency that Ajami could easily be mistaken for a documentary. In Shani's words, “It was essential that we delivered reality as it is, without exaggeration, in its complexity. We had to capture the real language, the real people, the real mentality, the way people are.”
The film is divided into five chapters, each one shot from a specific perspective and each adding an extra layer of tension. As the film opens, 13-year-old Nasri (Fouad Habash) is prescient when he says "I know I can feel what is about to happen." Shortly thereafter, a drive-by shooting kills an innocent fifteen year old boy when he is mistaken for Nasri's older brother Omar (Shahir Kabaha). The shooting is in retaliation for the death of a member of their clan who was killed by Nasri's uncle. Though a truce is reached with the Bedouins, aided by Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani), a Christian community leader, Omar must pay them $57,000 to stop the fighting. In dire straits and desperate for money, Omar falls into the underworld of drugs and violence.
Meanwhile, Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a sweet-faced 16-year-old Palestinian boy living in the Occupied Territories comes to Jaffa to find work at the restaurant of Abu Elias. Fearful of being sent home because of his illegal status, he works hard to try and pay for a bone marrow transplant that may save his mother's life but his need for money brings him into Omar's circle. In another sub-plot, Hadir's (Ranin Karim) relationship with Omar crosses religious lines (she is a Christian and he is a Muslim) and is adamantly opposed by her father Abu Elias who forbids her to ever see Omar again even though she pleads how much she loves him.
Events in the film come thick and fast: Bing, a wealthy Palestinian (Scandar Copti) wants to live with his Jewish girlfriend in Tel Aviv but a police raid looking for drugs puts an end to his plans, an angry Israeli policeman named Dando (Eran Naim) searches for his missing brother who was drafted into the Army and is feared to have been killed by the Arabs, a Jewish man is stabbed to death after complaining about the noise from sheep kept by Palestinians living nearby. According to Shani what unfolded, although broadly scripted, was spontaneous in its details - the hostility and the anger were real.
Ajami does not offer any easy explanations or any solutions to the neighborhood's unrest. It does, however, illuminate a problem that many would rather close their eyes to. The characters, like the hijacker Sandro in the Brazilian film Bus 174, are driven by circumstances to do terrible things out of rage and futility. While neither Bus 174 nor Ajami justifies their actions, it makes them more comprehensible. Though Ajami is grim and strips away idealism, it has a universal quality that begins and ends with the lovely song Eshkenakum by Maher Halabi, music that could be appreciated by any culture.
Ajami leaves the viewer with little to be hopeful about, but the fact that a Jew and an Arab could collaborate on an intelligent and passionate motion picture based in part on their own experiences is an important step forward. Change, however, will not come easily to Israel. As one of the directors has said, “It's very, very hard to change things -but…once you deliver different messages and things that surprise people and show them things in a different way and try to open their minds to things that they didn't think about or they never heard about before, you can make a difference in their perspective.” Shani may be telling us that when you are totally convinced that nothing is possible, it is but a short step to everything is possible.
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