Friday, 20 August 2010

'Ajami' review: Israel's answer to 'City of God'...

If you had to take a wild guess at what feature triumphed in the best film category at last year's at Israel's national film awards - the Ophirs - you'd most likely go for Sam Maoz's 'Lebanon', the Golden Lion winning film entirely set within the claustrophobic confines of a tank during the 1982 war with that country. But you'd be wrong. Triumphing instead was Israel's own answer to Brail's 'City of God' and Italy's 'Gomorra', a harrowing and realist portrayal of life in a poor Jaffa neighborhood called 'Ajami'.

Split between five interconnecting chapters, which each show a different aspect of life in the city from a different character's point of view, the film has an ambition and a broadness of scope which make it feel almost like the opposite extreme to the tightly wound 'Lebanon', with its restricted viewpoint. But in actuality the two films aren't miles apart. Both are visceral, gritty and feel authentic and both portray the conflict in the region from a humanistic standpoint, whilst neither is overtly political. And as Maoz based his film on personal experiences as a young conscript soldier, 'Ajami' is also deeply personal to its directors.

Co-directed by a Palestinian (born in Ajami) and an Israeli Jew, in the form of Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, 'Ajami' seems accurate in its portrayal a cross-cultural melting pot that sees Jews living alongside Muslims and Christians and where a grasp of both Arabic and Hebrew is essential to survive. So too is crime, as almost all the protagonists must break the law in order to make ends meet. One family is forced into thievery and drug dealing in order to pay off a debt to a powerful clan of gangsters. Another reluctantly turns to crime in order to pay for an operation for his terminally ill mother (admittedly, a somewhat hackneyed subplot). The Jewish police have to combat the Arab residents distrust and accusations of incompetence from wealthier citizens. In many ways it is like watching the Middle Eastern equivalent of an episode of 'The Wire'.

'Ajami' is an accomplished feature film debut from Copti and Shani. It is a polished film with a solid cast (including many non-actors) and its subject matter is certainly worthy of cinema. However, it is so much like those other films about criminality in poor and undeveloped, urban areas that it is questionable how trailblazing it is. Perhaps this similarity is part of a broader, more vital moral: that people are the same around the world and that poverty is the route of crime and intolerance. But in of itself 'Ajami' is indistinct in terms of its aesthetic or its take on the sub-genre. For that reason my vote would certainly have gone to 'Lebanon': a more original film. Though 'Ajami' is certainly no less compelling viewing.

'Ajami' is on very limited release in the UK and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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