Co-written and directed by Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, and Scandar Copti, a Palestinian living in Israel, Ajami is a compelling crime drama, set on the streets of a predominantly Arab neighbourhood in Jaffa, Tel Aviv. Taking their cue from the likes of Pulp Fiction and Amores Perros, the filmmakers split their narrative into a series of achronological and overlapping chapters: we follow a number of characters backwards and forwards in time, sometimes revisiting the same events from different perspectives.
The pivotal character here is Omar (Shahir Kabaha), a Muslim teenager whose family has become embroiled in a vendetta with Bedouin gangsters. In order to protect himself and his relatives, including his younger brother Nasri (Fouad Habash, the film’s narrator), Omar has to swiftly raise a vast sum of blood money. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Malek (Ibrahim Frege), his co-worker at the bar of local fixer Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani), needs cash to pay for his mother’s bone-marrow operation. Out of desperation Malek and Omar plan a drug deal, which brings them into the orbit of a Jewish policeman Dando (Eran Naim). The latter is increasingly obsessed by the disappearance of his soldier brother, last seen in the Occupied Territories.
Shot on actual locations and impressively acted by an entirely non-professional cast, the Oscar-nominated Ajami has a powerful immediacy, which is not always achieved by more star-studded productions. This is a volatile world where a verbal argument between neighbours over the noise of livestock can spiral into a fatal stabbing. To their credit, Shani and Copti refuse to view their characters as either heroes or villains, preferring instead to explore the pressures, loyalties and responsibilities experienced by individuals within their own communities. Omar, for example, has to keep secret his relationship with the Christian-Arab Hadir (Ranin Karim), the daughter of Abu Elias, while the dreams of Binji (played by Copti himself) to escape Ajami with his Jewish girlfriend are halted tragically. Following on from The Band’s Visit, Lebanon and Waltz with Bashir, Ajami is further evidence of the current resurgence within Israeli cinema.