Like most films set in the Middle East, Ajami depicts the region as a powder keg. But in nearly every other way, it’s a surprise: a bold and serious film about the frail threads that keep—or fail to keep—a society from falling apart.
The title refers to a sketchy neighborhood in Jaffa, Israel, where Muslims, Christians and Jews coexist uneasily. A teenager is gunned down outside his house, mistaken for Omar (Shahir Kabaha), a decent young man targeted by Bedouins. Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani), a powerful godfather type who controls much of the neighborhood, steps in as moderator between Omar’s family and the Bedouins, putting Omar in his debt.
But this is just the beginning of Ajami’s intricate web. Abu Elias employs a 16-year-old boy named Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a West Bank refugee trying to make money to help his ailing mother. Malek and Omar have an amiable pal who might be in some drug-related trouble. A cop (Eran Naim) is searching for his brother. The film—written and directed by first-time filmmakers Scandar Copti (an Israeli Arab) and Yaron Shani (a Jew)—presents its “chapters” out of chronological order, allowing the story to double back and present things from different points of view. The tragic error that opens the film encapsulates the rest of it. It’s all about sad misunderstandings perpetrated by flawed, relatable humans.
Comparisons to Crash are inevitable, as are observations that Ajami takes what Crash tried to do and does a better job of it. Using mostly nonprofessional actors and improvised dialogue, Copti and Shani create a vivid, authentic world that’s bleak but not oppressive. Rather, it’s suspenseful, the way certain good movies can take us to dark places without leaving us there. The directors’ personal connection to the material makes it resonate more deeply.
Shahir Kahaba, Youssef Sahwani, Ibrahim Frege