‘Ajami’, the Israeli entry for the Oscar this year is very different from the successful films that represented the country in the previous years. Directed by two newcomers on the cinema scene Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, it is acted most of the time in Arabic and deals with a world that many Israelis know only from the news – the crime and poverty dominated Arab districts at the periphery of the Israeli big cities. The name of the film is of one of these areas, in Jaffo, south and close to the shining lights of the Tel Aviv metropolis.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sF50ROdrJW0

Playing a little on the violent suburbs genre that was succesfull in other off-mainstream cinema schools ‘Ajami’ a complex crime story, involving a few characters who seem to be doomed for tragedy. An Israeli Muslim Arab finds himself in the middle of a families feud that turns into violence, murder and revenge. An illegal Palestinian worker badly needs money to help his ailing mother. Both will need the protection of a rich restaurant owner who is also a kind of local authority beyond and above police and law enforcement. Both will become involved in a drug deal which ends in shootings. Police seems unable to control the area and fits badly in the landscape, its appearance seems just to generate more conflict and violence than law and order. One of the policemen lives his own tragedy, his brother soldier brother disappears and is found later in Palestinian territory, probably kidnapped and murdered by terrorists. All these disparate threads come nicely together towards  the end and the intelligent script writing is the best part of the film.

It is not a pleasant film to see, and not designed to be so. The story is told from the perspective of the different characters, it requires attention to follow, and even if it has logic and all pieces of the puzzle eventually fit well, the different angles and the jumps in time make the film difficult or at least demanding to see. Actors are directed in a very natural way of acting, improvisation and living the character seems to be the rule rather than careful repeating the role – this gives a feeling of natural and chaos of life, but it asks the viewer rather than the director to fill in with meaning what happens on screen. Last, the colors and landscape is in many cases desolate and soulless, dirty and brutal, as the world the characters live in.

This realistic piece of cinema succeeds to be both direct in its mode of expression and sophisticated in its story-telling. The average Israeli viewer is impacted by the image of a part of the country and social life that is close and far at the same time. The final off-screen words belong to one of the characters, a child of the neighborhood who draws the comics representation of the story all along the film, to become part of the drama in the final. ‘Do not close your eyes’ – this message may be seen as directed to a whole society, as Ajami is part of the same world we all live in.