For many of us, it’s difficult to think about Israel and the adjoining Palestinian territories without considering the obvious: history, homeland, statehood, settlements, security, political legitimacy, the future of Jerusalem — the list goes on.
With their award-winning debut film, Ajami (2009), Copti and Shani create a riveting drama that typifies human normalcy, desperation, and frustration in the day-to-day life of a very complicated and largely misunderstood part of the world.
Ajami – named after the impoverished, Arab-dominant neighborhood in the Israeli city of Jaffa – follows a set of tangential plots and their respective characters around Omar, a young Palestinian Israeli, and Malek, his non-Israeli Palestinian friend and co-worker at a local restaurant.
Hunted for revenge because of his uncle’s violence, Omar is obligated by an elder Bedouin tribunal to pay an unconditional sum as amends, which would also protect his mother and younger brother. Meanwhile, Malek, who is both residing and working illegally, is pressed to earn money faster to help his ailing mother.
After the overdose of a friend, Binj (played by Copti), Omar and Malek risk selling his drugs as a solution to their financial problems. What ensues is a dangerous situation that is both unexpected and somehow inevitable.
Ajami has been compared to the structural and tonal likes of 2004’s Crash – with its chapter breakdown, flashback sequences, multiple perspectives and interconnected characters.
However, because Copti and Shani hired non-professional actors – actual residents of Jaffa – and allowed freedom of script, the authentic dialogue and interplay manage to escape the trappings of what could have been a contrived and clichéd narrative.
Those that have intimate knowledge of Israel will attest to the film’s striking realism. The battered landscapes, urban grit, and immense cultural and hierarchal complexities both within and outside the Arab and Jewish communities are displayed without pretense. Despite this unique backdrop, however, the most captivating result of the film is the universal nature of its characters.
Relatable themes such as family protection, lack of healthcare, illegal immigration, neighborhood violence, ethnic clashes, intercultural relationships, and stringent patriarchy are prevalent throughout. And that’s why Omar and Malek, in addition to other supporting characters are so amenable to the viewer. The characters’ anxieties for themselves and their families are heartfelt, and their daily struggles are not entirely unlike those of many living in other parts of the world – particularly within our own communities.
Selected for nomination by Israel as its first predominantly Arabic-spoken picture for the 2010 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, Ajami offers an intriguing point of view on a facet of Israel’s complex reality while engaging the audience with a thrilling story that unfolds in twisting, cinematic fashion.
Ajami opens today, Sept. 26 at the Oriental Theatre, 4: 15 p.m., with screenings at The North Shore Cinema on Sept.28 and at the Ridge Cinema on Oct.2. For tickets and showtimes, click here.