Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"I know I can feel what is about to happen," declares 13-year-old Nasri (Fouad Habash), as he sketches in pencil a picture of a man changing a car tyre. "I felt it two weeks ago."

We cut to a fortnight earlier, and see the actual man changing the actual tyre in a street of Ajami, a tough, multicultural neighbourhood of Jaffa. Moments later, the man is gunned down by a pair of Bedouin gangsters on a moped. They were out to avenge the shooting of a fellow gangster by Nasri's uncle, and have just, in an awful case of mistaken identity, killed an innocent neighbour who they believed was Nasri's older brother Omar (Shahir Kabaha). Now, two weeks later, Omar is desperately trying to pay off compensation to the Bedouins, in a face- (and life-)saving deal brokered by local Christian Arab benefactor Abu-Elias (Youssef Sahwani), who has not yet realised that Omar and his own daughter Hadir (Ranin Karim) have secretly been conducting an affair. Meanwhile Nasri is experiencing another premonition that "something bad is going to happen".

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This is just the first of five chapters that make up Ajami – all tightly interwoven with little regard for conventional chronological order, all rooted in misunderstandings and partial perceptions and all chronicles of a death (or several) foretold. Along the way we meet Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a Palestinian 'illegal' from Nablus, who is working for Abu-Elias to pay off his mother's medical bills – and Dando (Eran Naim), an Israeli policeman distraught at the disappearance without trace of his conscripted brother – and Binj (Scandar Copti, who also co-wrote and co-directed), an apolitical, hedonistic Arab despised by his friends for having a Jewish girlfriend and harassed by the Israeli police for the crimes of his drug-dealing brother.

Indeed, all the principal players in Ajami are drawn into their respective brothers' problems, and it is always the innocent who pay for the sins of the guilty. There are hints at the sort of collective punishment so often rained down by Palestinians and Israelis upon one another, but really there are far broader concerns here in what is, in effect, a drama of divisions, set largely in an Israeli Arab community populated by Christians, Jews and Muslims.

In other words, there are plenty of incendiary tensions to go round in Ajami, and they fuel one another in unexpected ways, as the personal and the political become horrifically confused. Filmmakers Copti and Shani present their characters (played by local non-professionals) in domestic settings or amid family crises, so that they are always humanised within their escalating situations, and so that their intentions are entirely understandable from one scene to the next, no matter how catastrophic the unforeseen outcomes of their actions. After all, as Dando puts it: "Until it affects you personally, it's just a story in the news." Here, instead, we get credible, flesh-and-blood stories in the street, all told with a spiralling multi-dimensionality that matches their inherent complexity.

As the characters' paths and narratives criss-cross each other in a chaotic manner reminiscent of Paul Haggis' Crash (2004) or anything directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, gradually a bigger picture emerges that allows us to reassess our initial impression of disastrous future events only half-glimpsed, so that everything eventually becomes less confusing, if all the more depressing.

For here, as in a Sophoclean tragedy, wisdom does not bring profit to the wise, fate cannot be eluded, and the blind lead the blind. Yet Ajami is an Israeli-German co-production, resulting from the fruitful collaboration of a Palestinian and a Jew, with its credits - and much of the dialogue - in both Arabic and Hebrew, as though the film's harmonious production background were itself a corrective to the bleak themes of social volatility presented on-screen. That may seem only a scrap of hope, but after the impact of this film's ending has hit you head-on and left you to pick up the pieces alone in the dark of the cinema, you will be desperate to clutch onto anything or anyone for comfort.

Reviewed on: 05 Oct 2009
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Crime drama sees clan violence spiral out of control in Israel.
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Director: Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani

Writer: Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani

Starring: Fouad Habash, Shahir Kabaha, Ebrahim Frege, Eran Naim, Scandar Copti, Ranin Karim, Youssef Sahwani, Elias Saba, Hilal Kabob, Moshe Yerushalmi, Tamar Yerushalmi

Year: 2009

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: Germany, Israel

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