Ajami
Fine, you can buy Miley Cyrus tickets. You didn’t have to pull a gun.

Theatrical Release Date: 03/12/2010 (USA), 09/17/2009 (Israel)
Directors: Scandar Copti & Yaron Shani
Cast: Fouad Habash, Nisrine Rihan, Elias Saba, Youssef Sahwani, Abu George Shibli, Ibrahim Frege, Scandar Copti, Shahir Kabaha, Hilal Kabob, Ranin Karim, Eran Naim

Recently nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film (though the winner was Argentina’s “El Secreto de Sus Ojos”), Israel’s entry of “Ajami” is now getting released in the states. It comes from the directing team of Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, who were looking to explore the multi-ethnic and religious realities in the Ajami section of Jaffa, Israel.

Within the four act structure, we see an Israeli family embroiled in a middle eastern version of the Hatfields and McCoys, a Palestinian refugee desperate to finance his mother’s surgery, a Jewish police officer searching for his missing brother and another Palestinian attempting to start a life with his Jewish girlfriend. This is a lot of ground to cover and while I can appreciate complexity, the other adjective I unfortunately add to the whole affair is convoluted.

The film is sort of like “Pulp Fiction” meets “Crash (2005)“. While I can appreciate that “Ajami” broke itself into chapters in order to show the characters from different perspectives, the colliding of these chapters ends up creating a neighborhood crime saga that seems too far fetched to be believed. Also, I would imagine that someone with a far better grasp on the Israeli/Palestinian dynamics would get a lot more out of the character conflicts here – I’m not pretending to understand it all having no direct ties and found myself clashing my own ideology and culture with the film’s.

There is a lot to admire in the making of “Ajami”. A joint collaboration between an Israeli Jew (Shani) and a Palestinian citizen of Israel (Copti), their combined experiences allow for a film that sees both points of view. They hired an entirely non-professional set of actors to create authenticity and put them through months of acting workshops to discover their characters. Also, many of the scenes were improvised between the actors – some of whom knew about events that would unfold and others who did not. The results of all of this was over 40 hours of footage shot from different angles that had to be edited down into the two hour runtime over the course of a year long process.

Still, first and foremost on the audience’s mind should be the quality of the end product. The best aspect of the film was how the filmmakers were able to alter our perspective of a character once new information was offered up in a later chapter. This isn’t a story of good versus evil, rather of gray areas that everyone wades through over the course of their lives – no matter religious or ethnic background.

However, the manner in which Shani and Copti deliver this message seems entirely too drawn out and didn’t coalesce well enough to create enough empathy or sympathy for the characters. A 3 out of 5, “Ajami” wouldn’t have made my top five foreign language films from 2009 (sorry, Oscar) and the making of the film is far more fascinating than the reels of celluloid being shown on-screen.