If you’re looking for a Middle Eastern version of the television series, The Wire, Oscar-nominated film Ajami certainly comes close. Directed by an Israeli Arab Christian, Scandar Copti, and an Israeli Jew, Yaron Shani, the film is a harrowing account of daily life in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, a contiguous city to the bubble that is Tel Aviv. In Arabic, the word ajam signifies silent, one who does not speak Arabic, or foreign. The label seems ironically appropriate for an Arab neighborhood existing as part of a city known for its genial calm and consequent apathy to the greater Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The film intertwines five different stories, effectively weaving a tale of all those connected to the neighborhood, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or Jewish.
Our narrator greets us from the heart of the action, introducing us to Ajami through the eyes of a boy whose family is caught in the middle of a gang dispute with a neighboring Bedouin tribe. Each chapter presents a different perspective of the everyday life of Ajami. We become intimately acquainted with Omar, the 19 year old elder of his family, and Malek, a 16 year old illegal worker from Palestine. Both are caught in the struggle for survival. Omar, in need of money to pay-off the Bedouins in exchange for peace, and Malek, desperate to afford his mother’s life-saving operation, find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty-induced crime. In another chapter, we meet Dando, the Jewish cop whose brother has disappeared, only to be found dead in Palestine. Through Dando, we experience both the violence and brutality of the Israeli police, as well as the torment of losing ones loved one to terrorism.
Like The Wire, the film Ajami tells a story so layered in varying perspectives, that it does not allow room for one narrow judgment. In a BBC article entitled Jewish-Arab crime film captures tensions, Heather Sharp quotes co-director Yaron Shani: “It’s not about who is bad and who is good, who is guilty and who is a victim, it’s about human beings who have to live in this reality. Everybody sees this reality in a different way.” Consequently, the film presents a world that is as convoluted as the reality it represents. Yet, as is the reaction to many films that focus on violence in poor neighborhoods, some Ajami residents believe that it paints an image of their home in too negative a light. According to Sharpe, while some residents are unhappy with the traumatic portrayal of life in Ajami, others agree that the film touches on predominant issues within the changing landscape of Jaffa. Shani continues, “Everything is political, but life is much bigger, it’s much deeper, much more ambivalent, much more complex than some kind of political agenda.”
What makes the film even more compelling is its cast of amateur actors, many of whom are Ajami residents themselves. The first-time directors created the story organically, establishing unscripted scenarios and allowing the actors to react honestly to situations that they may have actually experienced in their life in Ajami. Seven years later, their film is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. This is the third nomination in a row for Israel, whose previous two nominations included Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008) and Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort (2007), both films about the first Lebanon war. Yet, Ajami is the first Israeli Oscar candidate that predominately features Arabic dialogue.
Regardless of whether it wins the Oscar or not, it is a film well worth seeing. Although a heart-wrenching account of conflict within Israel’s borders, this emotional roller coaster is worth the ride. Unlike the couple sitting in front of me in the theater who managed to gasp in horror each time a Jew was killed, but never when an Arab was murdered, I hope that this film will shed some clarity on the roots of anger and hatred and the ways through which the need for revenge feeds cycles of violence for all parties involved.