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Crime and Pessimism

February 28, 2010
Ajami

Ajami is the Israeli-Palestinian Crash, but don't let that scare you off.

Ajami is the Israeli-Palestinian Crash, but don’t let that scare you off. Crash’s fundamental error was its outdated premise that America’s primary racial problems are still violence and verbal bigotry, rather than quiet systemic inequality. No one would argue that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has yet reached a point where its problems could be called “quiet.”

Taking place largely in Israel proper, Ajami does not immediately appear to be about “the situation.” Its primary dramatic trope is crime, not politics. We meet amateur drug dealers and cops, not terrorists and soldiers. And yet the pressures of six decades of conflict infect nearly every interaction. When an Israeli Arab cook (Scandar Copti, who also co-directed and co-wrote the film) announces his plans to move in with his Jewish girlfriend, a friend accuses him of selling out and storms out of his apartment.

The film is broken into five chapters that dart kinetically from location to location, back and forth in time. The first deals with the fallout from an incident when the Israeli Arab owner of a café shoots a Bedouin mobster seeking protection money. The second features a boy from the occupied territories who works illegally in Tel Aviv-Yaffa and is trying to raise money for his mother’s cancer treatment. Only in the third chapter does the film begin to deal explicitly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this section, an Israeli policeman devotes his off-hours to figuring out what happened to his brother, a soldier who went missing months earlier. But is this chapter really any more politically concerned than any other? Is it less? The policeman’s brother’s disappearance did not happen during battle, and it’s variously suggested that he’s gone ultra-Orthodox or that he was mugged by a Palestinian. If he is dead, is he a casualty of war—or crime? Ajami’s claim is that it’s often impossible to tell the difference.

In the final two chapters, the narrative threads from the first three chapters converge, and a portrait of a society poisoned by mistrust begins to emerge. Misunderstanding compounds misunderstanding, culminating in a climax that is a bit too contrived in its attempt at tragic profundity. But until that scene, the film never hits a wrong note.

Ajami is enormously suspenseful. Ignoring Hitchcock’s rule that suspense is built through cross-cutting between opposing forces, Copti and co-director and co-writer Yaron Shani create their effect through surprise. We are never given warning when something truly horrible is about to happen, instilling a sense that an outburst of violence could happen anywhere, at any time. In some ways, this approximates the edginess that permeates Israeli and Palestinian society, two communities where guessing when the next war will begin is practically a national sport.

The near-constant sense of dread makes the occasional scenes of tranquility that much more powerful. When the Israeli policeman gives his baby daughter a bath, or the Israeli Arab cook smokes weed with his friends, you can understand why people in Israel describe life there as more vibrant than in the U.S. When death may be just around the corner, how can you not cherish quiet moments with family and friends?

The cast of Ajami is nonprofessional, but you’d never know it. The acting is exceptional across the board. Particularly good is Shahir Kabaha, who plays Omar, a slouching Israeli Arab teenager in over his head trying to defend his family from a Bedouin vendetta. Also of note is Copti’s cool-faced portrayal of Binj and Ibrahim Frege as Malek, the boy raising money for his mother’s operation. While Omar can’t repress his goofiness, Malek’s face is frozen in a mask of mute terror.

While Jews and Palestinians from the occupied territories play a significant part in the film, most of the major characters are Israeli Arabs. Indeed, the film is named after, and mostly takes place in, an Israeli Arab neighborhood in Tel Aviv-Yaffa. Ajami captures a particularly fragile moment in time for Israeli Arabs, who have always occupied an awkward middle ground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Residents of Israel proper, they share citizenship with the Jews but ethnic kinship with the Palestinians. Economically, they’re better off than the Palestinians but worse off than the Jews. They’ve been variously seen as a model of co-existence and as a potential fifth column. The disappointments of the failed peace process and the wars in Gaza and Lebanon have created an atmosphere of mutual suspicion. It’s a natural subject for Copti, who does not refer to himself as an Israeli Arab but rather “a Palestinian citizen of the Israeli state.” That’s a self-identification you would have been unlikely to hear 20, or even 10, years ago.

Much like the people of Israel and the Palestinian territories, Ajami is ultimately fatalistic. Unlike Gomorrah, a similar—and similarly powerful—film, Ajami does not allow any of its characters an escape. No matter what choices they make, they all eventually get sucked into a vortex of violent conflict—or at least alienation. Copti and Shani were undoubtedly aware that taking a political stand on the conflict would doom the film’s chances at an Oscar nomination, and greatly impair its potential for international distribution. Ajami is a brilliant film, but it is also an object lesson in how to play the international festival circuit. Resigned pessimism sells. Political boldness does not.

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