Saturday, March 8, 2014

Ajami














AJAMI            A-                   
Israel  Germany  (120 mi)  2009  d:  Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani

A riveting piece of social realism told with an unsparing eye as we view life on the narrow and confining streets of Jaffa, an old Tel Aviv neighborhood of mixed cultures, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, all violently suspicious of the other, where life is portrayed as a neverending series of tragedies that are rooted in the generational hostilities that affect those growing up in this part of the world.  For each tragedy, there is no answer, only an unending pain and suffering from which there is no outlet, even in revenge, as the gist of this larger societal problem is families losing their children to the senseless violence, as they’re the ones, like pawns, sent in to do damage control and only end up as casualties.  The more emphatically they hate, the quicker they are gunned down, all generating a kind of societal hysteria that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.  One might sense a touch of melodramatic overreaction here, especially considering the non-professional cast, but this hysterical overreaction to every loss accurately portrays the way families respond to their grief publicly and openly as their children are shot down on the streets, as captured by so many news reports.  What this film does amazingly well is provide context through a rich fabric of background detail, as each of these eventual victims comes from a family, sometimes as a child, a brother, an uncle, a father, where our growing familiarity with them has an impact, but one commonality is that these families are all in turmoil even before we see the shattering effects of their eventual fate.  Families routinely send away children who they suspect to be in grave trouble, which is a similar tactic used when confronting inner city American gang problems.  But the long reach of violence and hate-based revenge has a way of finding them. 

Written by Israeli co-directors, one Arab (Scandar Copti) and one Jew (Yaron Shani), supposedly seven years in the making, one of the best choices the filmmakers made was embracing the idea of immersing the audience directly into the experience of day to day life in Jaffa, finding that unique pattern of life that exists there and there only, using interweaving narrative threads that are told out of time, challenging the audience’s perceptions of the unfolding events, but also allowing a greater appreciation for some of the characters, who in most instances are quite different than we are first lead to believe.  The second time around when we see the same events from a different light it significantly alters our perception of the events.  The film is narrated by a young Arab boy Nasri (Fouad Habash) who idolizes his older brother Omar (Shahir Kabaha), a young man who despises cowards and refuses to flee in the face of life threatening danger after his uncle killed a man he thought was a robber, but turns out to be a henchman from one of the neighborhood warlords who now vows revenge.  In the Middle East where guns are so widespread and killings are so commonplace, we have rarely seen the portrayal of neighborhood protection rackets, run like the mafia where the heads of the families work out their own truce agreements among themselves in order to maintain protection from their avowed enemies, usually for large sums of money, and in this way, everyone is either protected, punished, or heavily compensated through a kind of street justice, an extremely hierarchical structure which takes on the look of Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), with those young, adolescent hotheads at the bottom continually killing each other off while protecting the family bosses behind the scenes.        

Told out of sequence in chapter format keeping the audience continually offguard, this completely absorbing film also highlights the difficulties of maintaining long-term relationships, even friendships, as family traditions ultimately conflict with more modern views, where the kids have found a way to cross culturally mix, which is the face of the future in a modernized world, but families continue to insist on outdated practices that kids should only mix and marry within their “own kind.”  Even one of the directors (Copti) plays the role of a narcissistic, coke consuming Arab playboy who runs around with his Jewish princess on his arm, where sleeping with the enemy leaves his friends in a state of abject moral disgust.  When they all go to school together, participate in activities and neighborhood events together, this mandated separation seems ridiculously impossible, yet parents unwaveringly continue to insist on maintaining separation, only fanning the flames of built up tensions that continue to dot the landscape.  Over time, we see the build up of inconsolable family grief and despair which comes to represent the societal state of mind, leaving in its wake a kind of unwanted paralysis that hangs over the land where nearly everyone is mourning over someone’s untimely death.  The film does an excellent job revealing how the sins of one family member is eventually paid for by another, where the innocent are mowed down with perhaps greater frequency, as they never expect it coming.  To the film’s credit, it remains thoroughly credible, a gritty and unsentimentalized view of neighborhoods in chaos, where the social fabric holding it all together has broken down ages ago, and all that’s left is a cloud of utter hopelessness and despair.  

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