Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Copti/Shani, Israeli/Palestinian AJAMI arrives, shortlisted for Best Foreign Film

Is AJAMI this year's Gomorrah? Every bit as bleak -- yet streaked with odd, dark, only occasion-
al and seemingly accidental poetry in its verbiage and visuals -- it is closer to art than its Ital-
ian counterpart, the roots of which re-
main firmly in jour-
nalism. What these two films hold in common is a strong sense that any kind of workable social contract has gone missing from the culture on view (if indeed it was ever present). Instead, when some sort of contract does crop up (the scene with the "judge," combining tradition and bargaining with gangland murder), it's so "local" and power-heavy as to seem almost beside the point.

Ajami actually offers us two cultures -- Arabic and Israeli -- or more precisely Israeli and several "outsider" cultures within the framework of that which we opposing outsiders (including the Israelis) might call "Palestinian." That the film has joint directors, one Israeli (Yaron Shani, shown above, right), the other Palestinian (Scandar Copti, shown above, left), just makes this project all that much unusual and fascinating. What we have in place of any social contract understood by the populace, are multi-cultures rubbing up against each other until bleeding occurs, struggling for whatever power can be gained and held, with the stakes constantly raised and the territory continually shifting beneath the participants' feet. Betrayals, big and small, are
simply a matter of course.

The film's title, the directors explain in their press notes, refers to a district controlled by Israel that is melting pot of cultures, nationalities and opposite perspectives.  To the Ajami area come the illegal immigrants from neighboring countries looking for work.  They find it -- but also find themselves under the thumb of the "legal" Palestinians in control here.  Above them all, of course, are the Israelis. Yet even the poorest and least powerful can find ways to get ahead, the consequences of which, as is often the case, prove as much unintended as intended.

The film begins with a narration accompanied by strong, sudden and bloody visuals.  A gang member demands, via threat and gunshot, some protection money from a small businessman who repays  the gang member in kind, setting off a chain of revenge killings.  Elsewhere, a young illegal labors for a  powerful Palestinian to raise funds to pay for his mother's operation. We discover that these two stories are marginally linked, and then we meet a wide cast of supporting characters -- Arabs and Israelis -- in particular a group of dirty cops (or perhaps these are simply typical Israeli cops), one of whom's brother, a soldier, has gone missing. Some of these Arabs, despite what Allah might say, like to go clubbing and drugging, and this, too, has consequences.

We think we know what's going on here, and indeed we do.  Sort of.  But the movie, which goes back and forth regarding time and location, keep unraveling, and with each roll of that ball of yarn we discover more and at the same time have many of our assumptions upended.  The movie, Copti & Shani's first, is more sophisticated than it initially appears.  The filmmakers have cast entirely non-professionals in all the roles, and they claim to have chosen actors who were close as possible to the characters they play.  While this means, I would think, that the cast is rather unsavory in many ways (the director himself plays a drug addict: whoops!), the resulting film looks about as real as you could want.  Copti & Shani shot in chronological sequence -- so that their novice actors would be able to experience (and then communicate) the reality of their stories. They then edited their film to create the kind of mystery concerning event, relationship and character that they had originally planned.

All this works -- and works so well, in fact, that the movie has been shortlisted for Best Foreign Language film in this years Academy Awards.  I cannot imagine that it will not make the final cut -- and perhaps go on to win the "Oscar" -- because it offers so much of what Academy members seem to want: It moves, surprises and enlightens; comes from a country and culture much in the news; offers a story with which mainstream audiences can connect but does this is an extremely sophisticated manner. Plus it's dual directorship of Israeli & Palestinian is just too good to pass up (the Academy prides itself on noble intentions that bring us together).

The only fly in the ointment may be the dark -- you might posit hopeless -- quality the film possesses. Its ending, however, veers very close to the sentimental. It manages to avoid this, but coming as near as it does may be just what the doctor ordered for Academy members who, if they can't feel good, can at least feel something -- and strongly. The film offers this in spades.

Ajami, released through Kino International, plays tomorrow, January 31 only, at the Spokane International Film Festival, and then opens Wednesday, February 3, for a two-week run at New York City's Film Forum, as well as at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on Friday, February 5 -- before setting off for playdates around the country.  You can check the cities and theaters here (click the link and then click top, right, on Playdates).

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