Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ajami: Middle East Pulp That Isn't Just Fiction

This story set in the Ajami neighborhood of Yaffa - a cultural clash of Arab Israelis, illegal Palestinians, Christian Arabs, Muslims and Jews - is remarkable not only for the story it tells, but the story of its making, both of which are worth notice.

Ajami relates the travails of a series of young people - a Muslim Israeli teenager and his younger brother, an illegal Palestinian restaurant worker, the Christian Arab benefactor he works for, an Arab Israeli cook and his Jewish girlfriend, and a Jewish cop with a missing brother. Their stories, involving drugs, assassinations, spontaneous violence, repayment of debts, and dangerous romances, are told in five separate non-sequential sequences that all eventually come together at the end...much like an Arab-Israeli Pulp Fiction.

But the movie is even more remarkable when you consider how it was made: by two filmmakers, one Arab and one Jewish, who decided to become friends in order to join their stories and collaborate over a period of two years. And who enlisted all the actors in the film from actual young people - non-actors - living in the neighborhood, who were given characters and situations and asked to essentially improvise their lines.

What results is a film that is remarkably fresh...with hugely appealing characters and emotionally charged realistic dialogue. I guess you might call this Arab/Israeli mumblecore, but whatever it is, it's fascinatingly great filmmaking.

The main character is Omar, an open-faced, charming young Muslim Israeli who has the unfortunate luck to have an uncle who unthinkingly killed a criminal Bedouin who was trying to shake down his restaurant. The Bedouin gang took the shooting personally, and is out for revenge: first shooting Omar's uncle, then going after Omar himself. Omar's only way to get the death sentence lifted is to appeal to a local restaurant owner, a Christian Arab who can negotiate a truce...and who also happens to have an eligible daughter who likes herself a little bit of that illicit Omar (without her father's knowing, of course).

The story takes off from there, eventually intersecting the lives of the other characters: the illegal Palestinian, whose mother has bone cancer; the Jewish cop, whose brother has gone missing; and the Arab cook who just wants to hang loose with his Israeli chick.

Even though the stories are all deeply specific to the Ajami neighborhood, and suffused with the tensions between Arab and Jew, Muslim and Christian, and so on, they stay focused on everyday life - that is, if gangs, drugs, and teenage romance are your everyday life - rather than the Palestinian/Israeli conflict itself...which remains in the background, merely the permanent environment against which these lives play out. One could easily imagine similar stories of young people taking place in the barrios of L.A. or the streets of Miami, only the religious and ethnic conflicts here are certainly more complicated.

Yet Scandar Copti and Yaron Shandi - our two writer/directors - manage to let us understand the cultural context as well as the deep tragedies and exuberance for life that comprise this neighborhood of permanent conflict and violence. Each character in our story is appealing: a young person of good intention just trying to survive in the world. Yet each character gets ineluctably caught up in the violence of the neighborhood. The scenes where families mourn the sudden violence and news of death on all sides of this conflict are each authentically moving; no doubt such authenticity from these non-actors comes from their own real-life experience of such tragedies.

This movie, to me, represents a real step forward from our Middle-Eastern filmmakers. Not just atmospheric, and not just exploring a subject of political or human interest - the film also has its own internal filmic life, the camera always capturing a fascinating interaction of character, the writing always taking us in fresh direction, but never forgetting the ultimate thread of the story. Copti and Shandi deliver something, I fear, that Tarrantino has never quite. Not just snappy dialogue and entertaining storytelling that references the gangland filmmaking tradition, but a movie about something real as well. Unlike Tarrantino's films, the violence in Ajami is really felt, politically relevant...and deeply mourned.

No comments:

Post a Comment