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Arab Cinema, Palestinian Cinema

Ajami (Israel/Germany 2009)

Malek and Omar in Ajami

This was a film I was eager to see having watched an item about its making on a YouTube clip from Al-Jazeera. I confess that about a third of the way through the screening, I began to wonder if I was going to be disappointed because I was finding the story hard to follow and the rough and ready camerawork was not offering me much visual pleasure. But when I finally grasped how the narrative was working I found everything to be much more rewarding. I’m still not sure about some aspects of the film, but I can see why it has won so many awards, including a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Plot outline (no major spoilers)

In the fashion of several recent films such as Gomorra, Crash (US 2004) or Amore Perros, Ajami offers several overlapping stories which are retold from different perspectives. Misleading ‘chapter’ headings suggest a linear narrative and for a moment I had the feeling that the reels were being projected out of order (except that I knew that it was a digital print!).

The title refers to a district of Jaffa, the now Israeli port city which has been almost swallowed by Tel Aviv. The district has a predominantly Arab population, but also a Jewish minority – the city is Jewish overall. The Arabs are both Muslim and Christian. The narrative begins with a feud between an Arab Muslim family and a Bedouin family from the Negev. After a series of tit-for-tat shootings, a ‘negotiator’ organises a financial settlement. This leaves Omar, the surviving oldest member of the Ajami family, with the task of finding a large sum of money in a short time. Inevitably, 19 year-old Omar is forced to turn to drug smuggling to raise money quickly. The story is narrated by Omar’s younger brother Nasri and the separate plotlines are linked via the restaurant/transport business where Omar works. Malek is a young man from the West Bank working in the restaurant illegally. His mother is seriously ill and he needs money for her medical care. ‘Binj’ is a chef with a Jewish girlfriend and Dando is a Jewish police officer. The restaurant is owned by a Christian Arab, Abu Elias, who helps both Malek and Omar – but Omar risks all in conducting a secret relationship with his boss’s daughter Hadir.

Commentary

The film has a low budget and a cast of non-professional actors who attended workshops set up by the two writer-editor-directors, one Jewish, Yaron Shani and the other Arab, Scandar Copti. Copti also plays the role of Binj. The whole process took around seven years to prepare, workshop, shoot and edit. IMDB suggests that it was shot on 35mm, but the definition of the print I saw suggests that it was digital or Super 16. The shooting and directing style appears to echo Ken Loach with an observational camera and non-professionals required to react to certain dramatic actions not directly explained in a script that is otherwise quite carefully fashioned.

The interest in the film is explained by three things, I think:

  • the acting style, camerawork and editing all contribute to a ‘gritty’ authentic feel;
  • despite the obvious antagonisms between different cultural groups and occasional asides about the occupation, the film doesn’t ‘take sides’ as such and is seen by several commentators as ‘even-handed’;
  • the use of familiar genre conventions such as family feuds, drug deals, over-strict fathers, exploitation of illegals etc., means that despite the non-linear narrative the film is still accessible to a wide audience (even if the subtitles and low budget will keep it out of multiplexes).

These three factors make this a film that could be used with 16-19 students in the same way that City of God/La haine and other youth crime films have proved so successful. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will develop a sufficiently high profile to attract teachers. It would also need a fair amount of work to explain the background to the plot (even Sight and Sound‘s subs make a mistake in referring to ‘Berbers’ rather than Bedouin).

Overall, it is clearly the work of young talents and can’t directly compete with City of God/La haine etc. I think it is perhaps 10 minutes too long, but still fails to deliver on some aspects of the narrative. However, it does offer something fresh. I’m glad that I saw it  and I look forward to further work by this pair.

Here’s the UK trailer (which strangely overplays the political narrative):

The US trailer is perhaps a better intro to the film:

Press Pack

Seen at Cubby Broccoli Cinema, Bradford, 1/8/2010

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