A crime film set in an Israeli town, 'Ajami' captures with great honesty and energy some of the ethnic snarls between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
The first feature from writer/directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, "Ajami" is one of this year's five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. This is the third year in a row that the Israeli entry has been nominated following decades of rather sparse representation.
It's not surprising that aesthetically ambitious Israeli films tend to revolve around ethnic conflicts, particularly with Palestinians. "Ajami" is no exception, but it takes a refreshingly sideways approach, compared with its two immediate predecessors among the Oscar nominees, "Beaufort" and "Waltz With Bashir," both of which were war films.
"Ajami" is basically a crime film, with cops, drug dealers, and petty thieves. The title refers to a low-rent area of Jaffa, populated by a mix of Israelis – Jews, Arab Christians, and Arab Muslims – as well as desperate Palestinians, who have penetrated the border illegally in search of decent jobs. It is, in short, an urban melting pot – a modern Middle Eastern equivalent to the New York neighborhoods that formed the backdrop for innumerable Hollywood gangster films in the 1930s and '40s. The film opens with a botched drive-by shooting: A Bedouin gang seeking revenge for an earlier incident intends to kill 19-year-old Omar (Shahir Kabaha), but instead murders a thoroughly innocent neighbor.
Not that Omar seems any less innocent. He has done nothing himself; it was his uncle who shot one of the Bedouins, triggering the vendetta. Even his uncle appears to have been acting in reasonable self-defense, although we only see the incident in a flashback narrated by Omar's little brother, Nasri (Fouad Habash), whose interpretation may be unreliable.