Jerrold Kessel, Pierre Klochendler
Inter Press Service (IPS)
February 15, 2010 - 1:00am

'Ajami' starts as a case of mistaken identity in a semi-tribal, semi-criminal feud: a kid fixing a car in the streets of Ajami, a nondescript Arab neighbourhood of the Mediterranean city of Jaffa, is killed in a drive-by shooting.

Soon, a backdrop of acute poverty, crime and social decay evolves into a powerful tale of suffering, vengeance, and survival.

'Ajami' is a somehow a worst-case scenario of lives cast in tragic circumstances, a mirror image of the many conflicts that subdue the lives of Jews and Arabs within Israel/Palestine.

In ostensibly unrelated sequences and overlapping re-enactments of the final episode, the narratives of the protagonists are examined over and over again, creating an ever more powerful and chaotic picture of a grim reality in the Israeli city which used to be a major Palestinian population centre and is now part of the metropolis of Tel-Aviv-Jaffa.

Ajami is a run-down quarter in the heart of the ancient port city, still a predominantly Arab neighbourhood of Israel's biggest city, a place where law and order are often less important than family structures.

The film tells the story of Omar, an innocent young man who is targeted in a vendetta-style feud between a Bedouin clan from the country's desert south and his own family of modest means.

Omar's wealthy boss, the neighbourhood leader, Abu-Elias (a Christian Palestinian but an Israeli), agrees to protect the family; he brokers a deal with the threatening Bedouin clan in exchange for a huge payback. That indentures Omar for life. Desperate for money to reimburse his debt, he becomes embroiled in a drug deal.

Working with Omar is Malek, a Palestinian labourer from the West Bank working illegally in Israel and beholden to the same unscrupulous businessman. Malek too desperately needs money to pay for an operation for his ailing mother.

Then, there is the Jewish cop whose soldier brother has been kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian gunmen, and also the seemingly impossible love story between the Christian businessman's daughter and the would-be Muslim drug dealer.

And then, a Jew living in Ajami is fatally stabbed during what began as a futile argument with his Arab neighbours about the unremitting noise of goats who roam the neighbourhood streets.

In real life, Ajami has in recent years become a major attraction for real- estate moguls. The whole of Jaffa has been increasingly gentrified with more and more Jewish Israelis attracted by the prospect of moving into an 'exotic' area with a view of the sea.

That is the socio-economic and cultural tensions that underlie the powerful human drama of the film.

Usually, a tragic tale about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dominates news channels; it is less likely to emerge as a strong candidate for the world's most prestigious film award.

But 'Ajami' is not any usual film about the conflict - the kind of movies that are more like visual pamphlets than a true kinetic experience, and suffer from black-and-white stereotypes and hackneyed dialogue heavily overladen by obvious symbolism.

The would-be reality of such films is generally subjugated to a narrative in which each side believes that its own extremists are just a small minority whereas, in contrast, on the other side the extremists are an absolute majority. In such films, the script tends to reduce reality to a uni-dimensional tragedy with little nuance.

What makes 'Ajami' so unusual is that it weaves itself into the rich, yet complex and unforgiving, social fabric of an Arab minority battling a series of conflicts about its place in Israeli society, while simultaneously enmeshed in the complexities of the broader conflict with their Palestinian brethren in the occupied territories and beyond.

So the film becomes a tale not just about Arab and Israeli, but about Muslims and Christians and Bedouin and, no less, about the rich dominating the poor.

A seemingly endless fight for survival to the finish between two competing nationalisms on the same small patch of land, or of two communities, or of two clans, competing for a place in the same city, plays out through the daily lives of the protagonists - people who, for the most part, play no overt part in the overriding conflicts of the region.

Still, as they fight for their own survival, they end up affected by the incapacity of politicians and would-be peacemakers from around the world to solve the broad conflict that plagues the land.

Another extraordinary feature of 'Ajami' is the fact that the actors are real life characters, not actors brought in from outside: Arab residents of Ajami itself, Jewish policemen whose job it really is to patrol the streets of Jaffa; even the Bedouin Qadi (Muslim judge) plays a version of himself.

A year of drama workshops prepared the ground for the three-week shooting on location.

'Ajami' is also by and large not a pre-scripted film in the sense that the dialogues are those of the actors themselves. "The actors never knew what would happen at the end of a scene," explains Scandar Copty, the Arab co- director.

That leaves the viewer with the potent experience of being drawn into the intimate and stark reality of daily life in the difficult neighbourhood.

As such, the film is bound by a prosaic challenge: daily life, after all, has an invisible dimension. What 'Ajami' demonstrates is that the reality of daily life reveals itself only when it is disrupted from without, by the outsider.

In 'Ajami', the outsider is everywhere, and everyone, as if daily life in the region ordered that people inevitably judge the other as "us" against "them".

Yaron Shani, the Jewish co-director of the film notes that "people live in bubbles unaware of others. Each side has its narrative, its dreams. They see the other as threatening those dreams. But if you enter the other's bubble, you see his dreams, his inner world and his values. Our goal," he concludes, "was to make the viewer experience what it means to be the other."

Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis may live together, the film tells. Arabs may speak the Arabic of the streets of Jaffa, an Arabic interlaced with key Hebrew words; Jews may use Arabic words in Hebrew. But, they rarely interact emotionally. And, when they do so, it is mostly in a chaotic manner.

There are many deaths. Yet, the sense of the place is vibrancy. Ajami is alive with energy - if only for the purpose of surviving a battle that is often perceived as existential.

Survival requires creativity and hope; though sometimes desperate, it is ultimately the kind of hope that conceives of the impossible as possible, of hopelessness being overcome.

Only last week, though, reality intruded. A telling 'remake' of 'Ajami' took place in real life Jaffa.

Tony Copty, a resident of Ajami, a supporting actor in the film and brother of co-director Scandar Copty, was brutally arrested by Israeli police along with another brother. According to the police version, he had assaulted police officers during a street brawl.

"In the movie you don't see the police jumping on innocent people, but it does happen in reality. We are in no way connected to crime, and the police know it," Copty said after his release several hours later. "But at the same time they didn't desist from telling me - even if it was only half-jokingly - 'you'll be in here my friend, until after the Oscars'!"


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