On its surface, "Ajami" is a compelling and gritty crime drama; think "Boyz n the Hood" meets "Crash." It's broken up into five nonlinear chapters, which forces the audience to pay close attention to get invested into the story. But the payoff is huge and, ultimately, quite moving.
The mean streets of Jaffa's rough Ajami neighborhood—a melting pot of the disparate lives and views of Jews, Muslims, and Christians—set the scene for several plot lines. Key central characters include a young Israeli trying to deal with a criminal vendetta against his family, a Jewish cop searching for his missing brother, a Palestinian refugee doing anything possible to pay for his mother's gravely needed surgery, and a wealthy Palestinian (played by co-director Copti) who is trying, against conventional odds, to forge a life with his Jewish girlfriend. How all of this is eventually woven together keeps the mystery alive, although at times it's confusing. The film is really about divisions—not just the obvious ones between Arabs and Jews but the overall class structure of this tiny society in a rundown community that mirrors the larger divide in the region and other parts of the world. This may seem foreign to some, but it's eminently recognizable and universal. It could be anyone's neighborhood.
The most remarkable thing about "Ajami"—and this film is remarkable in many ways—is a cast of locals who prove themselves top-notch actors. Making movies is a challenge for any performer, but imagine doing it without a net. That's what this brilliantly chosen ensemble is asked to do, playing scenes in which they don't even know the outcome beforehand. The directors, working with two cameras, create a searing, almost documentarylike framework in which their cast makes the transition from "real" to "reel" with apparent ease. To get the freshest performances, the directors say, they rarely did more than one, maybe two, takes. With nearly 40 hours of footage that they edited for more than a year, it's impossible to talk about what isn't onscreen, but the work they got that's here is never less than believable. Standouts include Shahir Kabaha as the kid who fights for his family, Ibrahim Frege as the young Palestinian refugee who works illegally to get money to save his mother's life, Eran Naim as police detective Dando, and Copti, proving as adept in front of the camera as he is behind it. The rest of the very large cast is flawless, as well.
In addition to its Academy Award nomination, "Ajami" also deservedly won best film at the Israeli Oscars.
Written and directed by: Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani
Starring: Shahir Kabaha, Ibrahim Frege, Fouad Habash, Youssef Sahwani, Ranin Karim, Eran Naim, Scandar Copti