By Shlomo Porath
The winner of this year’s Wolgin award for best feature, Ajami, has been hailed as an Israeli City of God, a masterpiece of Cinéma-vérité network filmmaking (interconnected episodes and characters). After having caught up with it at the Cinematheque this week, I must say I was not struck by either of these observations. I was, however, taken with its depiction of Israeli-Arab culture. I was enthralled by the spotlight it shines on a part of society I am shamefully uninformed about.
Split up into five chapters, the first four of which each focus (more or less) on a different character; the film is something of a mosaic of people in and around the Jaffa neighborhood of Ajami. Nasri (Fouad Habash) and Omar (Shahir Kabaha) are two Muslim brothers in a family embroiled in a violent feud with a Bedouin clan. An uncle of theirs shot a member of the other family who was attempting to rob a café at gunpoint. For revenge, the uncle was shot, the café torched, and a neighbor of the boys was shot, after being mistaken for Omar. Abu-Lias (Youssef Sahwani), a respected member of the community and the owner of the restaurant where Omar works, comes in to attempt to broker a peace between the two families. Abu-Lias is a Christian, relatively affluent, and carries himself with the air of the Godfather, assisting employees and members of the community in need. The scene in which both families meet to negotiate a peace is a priceless vignette, an absurd and marvelously observed scene.
Also working at Abu-Lias’ restaurant is Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a Palestinian teenager who sneaks past a checkpoint and is being employed illegally. Malek’s mother is in the hospital, needing an expensive bone-marrow transplant, something the Abu-Lias is also attempting to help with. The last of the major Arab characters is Binj, a cook at the restaurant. Binj has a Jewish girlfriend, and is cultivating a place in the mainstream (Jewish) Tel-Aviv society.
All of these characters are relatable and interesting, and seemingly represent, at least partially, some sort of cross-section of the different Arab communities in Israel. All are played by nonprofessional actors who crafted their characters over a long period of time with directors Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti. A lot of the characters and events are based on real life, something particularly thought provoking in the case of Binj, who is played by co-director Copti. I do not care to speculate on how much of Copti is in Binj, but it is difficult to ignore the sense that Binj’s cultivation of the Israeli mainstream probably resonates with an Israeli-Arab filmmaker working with Israeli-Jews in the film industry.
Considering the variety of the Arab characters, it is surprising that the film has only one major Jewish character, a policeman named Dando (Eran Naim). It’s not that more was needed- Dando’s chapter is the least interesting of the bunch. But Dando’s story does not seem nearly as representative or relevant as Omar, Malek or Binj’s. He is drawn rather crudely, with an entire storyline that does not feel like it belongs in this film (Dando’s brother, a soldier, went missing on his way home from base, and his family is searching for signs of him. I found it slightly offensive that a topic as traumatic as a missing soldier is used to such inconsequential effect here.) The whole character of Dando struck me as tossed off, created with decidedly less care than all the other major characters. I think that less of him would have helped the movie, as his material was far less compelling.
On a formal level, the film is interesting in a couple of ways, most obviously in its structure. Initially appearing to be straight-forward in its chronology, the film then jumps around in time, keeping the audience guessing as to which piece of the mosaic will next fall into place (it actually fills in more than I was expecting). This is a macro version of the effect that several sequences in the film have. They lull you into a relatively subdued vibe, a slice-of-life bit of casual socializing…then explode with a horrific act of violence. The bursts of violence are generally sudden, brief, loud, and deeply disturbing- a very sane and moral approach. I do not, however, think (as others have noted) that the film is centered on violence. The last act of violence in the film felt forced and, I’m sorry to say, convenient. It was also revealed in such away that it was more distracting than revelatory. Any statement the film had about violence was significantly diminished for me with the ending. This, however, like other troubling elements in the film, could very well seem less jarring upon a second viewing, without the surprises of the plot intruding on the visceral surprises of the scene.
The other aspect of the film’s form that struck me was its cinematography (by Boaz Yaacov). Though it was obviously influenced by modern European Cinéma-vérité type esthetics, the film’s look is not bleak and oppressive like many of those films (the look of which often telegraphs a pervasive nihilism that I find objectionable). It does not have excessively jittery hand-held shots, not does it have protracted static shots that are used to impress upon the audience that the film is Meditative and Serious. It is not overbearing in its visual scheme. There is a surprising amount of color in the film, even though it is muted by the general soft lighting of the scenes. It is a very good-looking film, one that does not give up cinematic beauty for the sake of ‘stark realism’.
In closing- this film did not exactly work for me on a narrative or structural level. I am however extremely grateful for the society and culture it showed me. The relatively mundane elements are ones that struck me the most- the conversations, rather than the shootings. The destructiveness of knives and bullets was not new to me, nor was it made new for me here. I was struck more by the little bits of Hebrew that casually appear in the conversations, the colloquialisms that are so ingrained in the people that they are ubiquitous in these Arabic conversations. I was also fascinated by the conflict of an Israeli-Arab trying to live in two different cultural circles. The arguments and the shows of affection.
I guess I missed many of the points that Shani and Copti were trying to impart…but I am quite happy with what I took away from this film. Perhaps another viewing down the line will allow me to fully experience the film as intended.