Sneeking into theatres a few weeks ago was the Israeli film Ajami, a multi-plotline film which explores the tensions and rivialries, based on both enthnicity and religion, in the Jaffa neighbourhood of Ajami. A unique aspect of the filmmaking process, aside from the fact that it was filmed on location in Jaffa, is that it was written and directed by an Isreali Jew (Shani) and an Isreali Arab (Copti). I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a couple of people from two solitudes, as well as creative talents, had managed to combine their forces and create a piece of work directly related to the bittereness which surrounds them everyday.
The trailer had me curious with the simple promise of a solid drama set in Israel and made by Israelis about the Arab, Jewish and even Christian conflicts. If anybody was going to tackle this difficult issue, it might as well have been them. Rather than opting for a simple storyline to drive home an onbvious point, Ajami travels through 5 different storylines and therefore 5 different routes to get to a similar notion: violence, suspicion and hate are unfortunately aspects to life in Ajami which are remarkably difficult to get rid of or avoid. The storylines are varied, but each is in some fashion or another intertwined with the others, be it thematically or because characters of one storyline literally appear in another. A Jewish Cop, a young Muslim man and the Christian girl he fancies, a Muslim boy who must resort to dirty deeds in order to pay for his mother's medical expenses, these are but some of the characters that populate the complicated but competently handled world of the film, a world certainly based on a stark reality.
It is here that I shall make a statement that some might find troubling. Ajami, its strentghs and weaknesses all combined, reminded very much of Paul Haggis' 2005 film Crash. Crash is considered by many people to be one of, if not the worst Best Picture winner at the Oscars, ever. I'm not going to turn this into a review of the Haggis film, but suffice to say that I find that movie to be just fine. Regardless, I couldn't but feel that Ajami was following a very similar strategy which Crash had in order to tackle a very similar if not identical theme: interconnected storylines to discuss and observe racism and ethnic tension. However, I would quickly wager that Ajami is a darker, more somber film than its American counterpart. Directors Copti and Shani do not shy away from showing us just how dangerous the streets of Jaffa can be, with any minute potentially being a person's last, whether or not that person even deserved their untimely demise or not (one of the storylines is set off by the assassination of a wrongfully accused boy). The film doesn't ever show any hints that there may be light at the end of the tunnel for the characters we follow, some of which are easily likeable and whom we would hope to see succeed in their goals. Copti and Shani are smart and more than aware enough that the world these people live in does not always reserve happy endings for them. There were a few moments throughout Ajami when certain characters would see their journeys meet grisly ends and I honestly hadn't seen it coming. I did enjoy this aspect of not knowing who was going to make it out alive or not, which is always a solid way of keeping one's interest in a film of this nature.
I'd also offer some praise to the filmmaking and acting, both of which did a nice job of really bringing a sense of authenticity to the film. Ajami has a documentary style feeling to it, but rather than come off as a gimick, it feels just right for the purposes of the storytelling. In a way it lends a sense that the viewer is right there with the characters on the streets of Ajami. We in the West often see images and videos on the newscasts about conflict in the Middle East and especially in and around Israel, so adopting a variety of cinematography akin to cinéma vérité was a wise and effective choice. The film is devoid of any musical score or soundtrack, notwithstanding any music that might be heard on and off in the background. While I happen to be a great admirer of scores, this would be a time when the absence of such a popular part of the movie watching experience was logical. There is a sufficient amount of tension, wonder and drama to be found in the actions and verbal exchanges of the characters without any music hinting at how the audience should be feeling at any moment. Given how the look and feel of the film was so close to a documentary, I'm not sure how the filmmakers would have fit in a score or soundtrack anyhow. I suspect it would have felt especially artificial in this instance.
The film is not without a few missteps. I wouldn't say they are major flaws in the filmmaking, but they did hold Ajami back from being a great movie. The first and most important were the frequent scenes of people shedding tears. More than once we witness an unfortunate soul learn of the death of a loved one. Of course they should feel sad and cry, but the camera seems to enjoy resting on those moments a bit too much, as if it were inviting the audience to cry along with those characters, which isn't something I buy into very often (read=never). Ajami, as good as it is at depicting the realities of Israeli society and difficulties the ethnicities within that society have in communicating with one another, didn't necessarily blow me away with the 5 storylines. They were all fine, my favourite probably being the one involving the Jewish cop trying to learn what happened to his brother who has vanished. None of the stories are bad, they work on one level or another, but none caught me by surprise with any stunning originality. As is the case with almost all multi-storyline films, you probably won't be as invested in some as you are in others, and this was a slight issue I had with Ajami. Still, I did not outright dislike any of them, it was only that some didn't earn the same interest I had in the others.
I don't know what the realease schedule for Ajami is. I recall seeing a trailer for it at one point in the winter season. I took note of the film's existence, but forgot all about it until I discovered it was playing at a local multiplex which is generous enough to show several international and non-English language movies. If by any chance you happen to stumble upon it, I'd invite you to give it a try. It's quite well made and acted and I have to assume it stays true to the realities on the ground in that region of the world. The message is not one we haven't seen or heard before, and anybody with the smallest interest and knowledge of the situation regarding the various cultures living less than harmoniously in the Middles East today won't find anything terribly new here. But as I've written on many an occasion when reviewing films with less than original plots, sometimes the quality in how a film is presented is more important and effective than what it is presenting.