Ajami, dir. Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, (now playing)
In the world of Ajami, violence and fear lie like volcanoes beneath the surface of everyday life in the titular Jaffa neighborhood where religions, cultures, and perspectives collide. The warm family scenes that open the film—a brother and a sister teasing each other, a young boy helping his grandfather in bath, a mother hanging sheets in a sun-drenched yard—are soon replaced by gunshots, screams, and blood. Later in the film we see happy children playing around the house where Arabic elders debate and quarrel in an attempt to settle a blood feud with huge amounts of money. When a Jewish police officer enjoys time with his little daughters at the end of a long day, the TV news at the back reports about the murder of an old man over a minor quarrel. A line in the report says it all, “In a place full of poverty, drugs and despair, a knife or gun is easy to draw.”
As the film examines how this spiral of violence and fear erodes the private space, ruins everyday life, and finally devours everyone in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious neighborhood, it tries to restore the personal and the human to stories oversaturated with politics. Accumulating seven years of collective effort, the project is built on the exchange of ideas, memories, and perspectives between the two co-directors, Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, and Scandar Copti, a Jaffa-born Palestinian. According to the notes from Kino International, the episodes in the plot are inspired by real events in the local history. The actors were chosen according to their similarity to the characters, in terms of personality and personal history. The making of the film centers on the participation of people from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, and the opening of doors, minds, and hearts.
Although the film is often associated with such crime tales as Gomorrah, City of God, or Pulp Fiction for its underworld topic and mosaic narrative structure, the shooting process and performing style evokes comparison with The Class. Like Laurent Cantet’s film, Ajami uses a local, non-professional cast to play some slightly exaggerated versions of themselves in situations derived from their everyday experience. Both films train the actors through extended workshops. The Class script is based on an autobiographical novel about a year in the life of a Paris public school teacher, and the author plays himself in the film. The students are played by real middle-schoolers too—who through the workshop helped develop their characters, improvise scenes, and create their own dialogue. Ajami goes further than The Class in its quest for what the directors call “a precise emotional structure” of the performance. The workshop focuses on, according to co-director Yaron Shani, the “psychological journey of the characters through dramatic role-playing.” The actors were not given dialogue to learn, nor a script to read, but thrown into scenarios—sudden gunshots or police arrests on the street, a son’s late arrival on a dubious night, an “illegal” worker escaping police investigation—and asked to react with their hearts. The film was shot scene by scene, chronologically, so that each actor would experience his or her personal story as if in real life. The resulting spontaneous, on-the-toes performance, captured by dark, gritty handheld camerawork of Boaz Yehonatan Yacov, gives the film a documentary intensity and rawness.
The spontaneity and intensity endows the film with an overwhelming sense of unexpectedness and dread. Both the poor, derelict Ajami neighborhood and the modern metropolitan Tel Aviv are represented as fragmented, claustrophobic, and full of dark interiors latent with unknown danger. The characters are trapped in their respective, suffocating present just as in the crumbled closet or dimly-lit parking lot they often find themselves; escape is impossible, while searches are often to no avail. A mother tries to flee the town with her children to escape the bloody revenge that has already claimed one innocent life in front of her eyes; a teenage boy from the occupied territory works illegally in Tel Aviv dreaming of paying for his mother’s bone marrow transplant surgery; a Jewish police officer on the edge of burnout is obsessed with the disappearance of his younger brother; an affluent Arab dreams of escaping Ajami with his Jewish lover. In the end all find themselves sinking into the dark snare of crimes. Identity, for all the ethnic groups, is defined in the negative, providing targets for murder and hatred, sources of hostility, obstacles in love and trust, and causes for persecution and despair. Violence becomes the only means of survival and the only form of self-expression available to them.
The tangled stories are told in five overlapping chapters with dazzling shifts in time, space, and perspective. Many scenes start abruptly and end unexpectedly. As the characters tread dangerous grounds, we as audience often have no clue of where we are, or of the place of a particular location in the city as a whole. Although Tel Aviv is a coastal city, we get only two brief glimpses of the sea: one is when three teenagers practice gun-shots in the dark of the night; the other when a young Palestinian is momentarily carried away by the scenery on a sunny early morning and forgets that, being an “illegal” worker, his only place is the dark indoors. As the spaces are fragmented, the people are also severed from their hometowns, from each other, and from the history of the land. Before the war in 1948, Jaffa was considered the cultural capital of what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. War, occupation, poverty, and crimes have long depleted the city of its cultural splendor.
Ajami tells a depressing story of hostility and disintegration, but also one of courage and humanity. Despite the chronological production, the finished film presents a tapestry of intersecting lives and fates, where faces, objects, and fragmented story-lines appear and reappear in different contexts that clash with each other as they move forward to the surprising and despairing conclusion. By juxtaposing the fragments and presenting the mysterious connections among them, the film gradually builds up the veins and pulse of the neighborhood and locates all the uprooted characters in it. The use of the crime and detective genre may have restricted the connections for the solution of conspiracy and crime, but the film also manages to link the characters through their anxiety and frustration, through the precarious and often fatal family bonds, and the shared yearning for a peaceful spot on the land. These are heart-wrenching moments, as when the young Arabic narrator’s prayer for the dead—“close your eyes”—echoes with a Jewish father’s tender request when bathing his little daughter. The film ends by calling us to open our eyes. It forces everyone to see the reality of the others and embrace its ethical responsibility.
LU CHEN is a contributor to the Rail.