Written and directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani. 120 minutes. Hebrew title: Ajami. In Arabic and Hebrew, with Hebrew titles (check theaters about English titles)
Sometimes the story behind a movie is nearly as dramatic as the movie itself, and that's the case with Ajami. Named after a high-crime area in Jaffa, where the film is set, the movie was co-directed by Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, and Scandar Copti, an Israeli-Arab Christian. First-time feature-film directors, they borrowed money from their families and used an almost entirely non-professional cast.
The movie, which won a special mention in the Camera d'Or Competition at Cannes (for first-time filmmakers) and the Wolgin Award (in a highly competitive year) at the Jerusalem Film Festival, is a multi-character drama with intersecting storylines. Narrated by Nasri (Fouad Habash), a young boy and aspiring artist, it opens when a guy working on his bike is suddenly shot dead in the street. The thugs who killed him were actually after Omar (Shahir Kabaha), Nasri's older brother. He was targeted because of a tangled feud between two families. A fixer, Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani), is brought in to make peace. But the cost of this peace is a cash payment that Omar's family doesn't have, so Omar, who is just out of his teens but heads his family since his father's death, turns to drug dealing to pay it off.
In a parallel story, Malek (Ibrahim Frege), 16, a Palestinian, illegally enters Jaffa and works at Abu Elias's restaurant. Malek needs to pay for his mother's bone marrow transplant, but he doesn't have a prayer unless he can get his boss to advance him the money. Abu Elias's daughter Hadir (Ranin Karim) also works at the restaurant, and she and Omar fall in love. But it's a match that is utterly unacceptable to her Christian father, since Omar is a Muslim.
Although the bulk of the film is set among Jaffa's Arabs, it also focuses on a Jewish cop named Dando (Eran Naim). Dando is a tough guy but he is terribly worried about the disappearance of his younger brother, a soldier. His story intersects with the others when he searches a house where cops suspect drugs are being sold. Binj (co-director Copti), a wise-cracking hipster type (think of a Tarantino character dropped down somehow into Jaffa) who has a Jewish girlfriend lives in this apartment. Binj is drawn into this mess when his brother stabs a Jewish neighbor to death after a silly argument over noise.
There's a lot going on here, and the directors have opted to weave back and forth in time throughout the film, so that we don't always know the meaning of what is going on in a particular scene. At times, this adds some mystery and excitement, while at others, it simply becomes confusing. The movie is divided into several chapters, each of which focuses on a different character, although most of the characters appear in several chapters. The directors have a good sense of how to set up a scene, and the violent moments are shot with an intensity and immediacy that makes the film seem almost like a documentary.
But the problem, one that often afflicts films with a large cast, is that the characters are not given enough depth. Just when we begin to get to know one, the story suddenly switches to another. By showing fleeting glimpses of so many lives, the filmmakers don't let us get to know anyone intimately. I would have loved to see more of Binj, for example, and to learn what makes a Jaffa pothead tick. Or to know more about Hadir, and to understand how deeply she really cares for Omar. Shahir Kabaha as Omar has the smoldering good looks of a matinee idol but Omar isn't as distinctive a character as he could have been. The same is true for Nasri. I kept wondering what it would be like to grow up wanting to be an artist in such a rough neighborhood, but the movie doesn't really let us know.
What it's brilliant at is depicting the tense atmosphere in Jaffa, where Jews and Arabs tolerate each other, but often grudgingly, and where any conflict can flare into violence. Scandar and Shani are born filmmakers and this is an incredibly impressive debut. Maybe in their next movie they can focus more on one or two central characters and look more deeply into their souls.