“I know I can feel what is about to happen,” says Nasri, the fearful young narrator and moral center of Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s Oscar-nominated film Ajami. His premonition represents the inherent tension between Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Christians living in the ethnically mixed neighborhoods of Jaffa on the border between Israel and Palestine. Nasri’s instinctual foreshadowing comes immediately before an opening crescendo of gang violence, setting the stage for the film’s five interlocking stories that overlap heavy doses of tragedy, fate, and comeuppance. Within this disjointed and artificial structure, the filmmakers position theses on race, religion, gender, and politics, making Ajami just another in a long line of thematically preachy melodramas hoping to tow the line between neorealist aesthetics and simplistic cause-and-effect morality.
For the bulk of its running time, Ajami addresses the way violence and betrayal beget more of the same, mostly in relation to interactions involving men with power and those without it. Confrontations abound, usually ending in sudden bursts of violence that cause damaging ripples within the community and beyond. Almost every main character becomes embroiled in such a situation, constructing a fluid notion of safety that’s constantly in jeopardy. A few examples include Nasri’s older brother Omar (Shahir Kabaha), who’s thrust into a deadly family feud after his uncle guns down a member of a local gang, leaving his family in danger of extinction. Omar must rely on elder mediators to negotiate a monetary settlement that will send his family into a lifetime of debt. Also, a young Palestinian worker named Malek (Ibrahim Frege) attempts to make money for his sick mother by working for a corrupt local businessman, only to get wrapped up in a drug scheme led by the now desperate Omar. In this sense, Ajami becomes a series of decision cycles, whirlpools of good intent that suck innocent characters into ambiguous situations.
Thematically, these types of intertwined scenarios have been done to death since Amores Perros a decade ago, and Ajami relies too much on the novelty of its environment without even trying to engage fresh character interactions. The ill-fated love affair between a Christian girl and Arab man, the manipulation of a desperate teen by a conniving restaurant owner, or the conversations between drugged out friends all play out like broken records. Only the story of a Jaffa policeman, Dando (Eran Naim), looking for his missing Israeli soldier brother produces some narrative resonance, mostly due to its simplicity and focus on familial trauma. But as a whole, Ajami mines familiar territory ending on moral platitudes and small statements posing as grandiose gospel, shrug-worthy no matter the political or social setting at its core.
Co-directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani cast all nonprofessional actors and set up intricate performance workshops to prepare for the shoot. That Ajami even comes close to succeeding is a testament to these performances, especially the guilt-ridden layers created by Naim for his turn as the conflicted Dando. The filmmakers also use a consistent handheld camera to intricately follow their leads through the gritty streets of Jaffa, hoping the documentary-like aesthetic will convince audiences they are actually capturing what it’s like to live in such a hotbed of activity. Lens flares, jerky camera movements, and off-screen violence often make it seem like the frame is about to tip on its axis, but despite the potentially dynamic material, the film never finds a coherent pace or rhythm. In the right hands, narrative gaps can be fascinating and subversive, but in Ajami there’s just hollow echoes of an already forgone conclusion.
By the end of Ajami, the narrative predictably comes full circle, ending with Nasri’s forlorn narration on the precipice of something terrible. But it’s his mother’s (Nisrin Rihan) words that make the most impact during the tiresome and contrived finale. “You’re too big for all these fears,” she says, hoping to convey some wisdom and perspective to her kind young son. Needless to say, Nasri doesn’t listen, and the rest is foreseeable headline fodder.
Even though Ajami was shot on 35mm, I was convinced the filmmakers used DV. Kino's digital transfer erases any evidence of texture in the film stock, blowing out daytime shots and giving the night sequences a murky tint. Some of the muted colors in the film blend into the darker areas, but the 1080p image is consistently crisp, and the DTS-HD 5.1 audio gives the film a formidable audible presence, especially during the chaotic opening sequences.
The barebones disc contains only one feature, a repetitive 29-minute documentary entitled "Ajami: The Story of the Actors," featuring thematically similar interviews with most of the nonprofessional performers cast in the film. The subjects discuss the lengthy performance workshops established by co-directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, covering the various stages leading up to shooting the film. But the feature's good intentions are completely uprooted by the pretentious musings of Hisham Suleiman, the lead acting coach who provides the one industry voice in the feature. His ridiculously self-important statements like "This movie will live on for another 200 years" and "No professional actor could reach this level of acting" inevitably downplay the strong performances on the screen, making one wonder why the directors themselves didn't volunteer to be interviewed. Also included: deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer, and a stills gallery.
Ajami continues the tedious trend of films that purposefully muddle interlocking stories to prove simplistic notions about hotbed issues, wrapping them in a familiarly tragic bow for maximum affect.