When you break it down, Ajami tells a pretty simple story: Two Muslim kids living in the eponymous Arab neighborhood in Jaffa, Israel, both in desperate need of money, stumble upon what they believe to be a valuable package of drugs and arrange an ill-fated sale. But co-directors and screenwriters Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani (a Palestinian and an Israeli, respectively) are not after anything so straightforward, and, like many a filmmaker before them, they subject their narrative to a counterproductive time-shuffling, crafting a web of shifting perspectives and peripheral plotting in an attempt to widen the film’s scope. So while Omar (Shahir Kabaha), a young Arab Israeli, wonders how he’s going to raise the money to settle a blood feud with a Bedouin clan that’s put a price on his head and his young associate Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a Palestinian refugee, works illegally in the desperate hope of funding his sick mother’s operation, Copti and Shani shift back and forth in time to introduce a series of subplots involving characters both within their circle of acquaintance and beyond.
By opening up their narrative, the directors signal their intention to take the pulse of contemporary Israel, making certain to cover the experiences of Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike, but these side paths into the life of a Jewish cop searching for his missing brother (who may have been killed by Arabs), a Palestinian planning to start a new life with a Jewish woman, and Omar’s ill-fated romance with a Christian girl are too thinly imagined and, in the latter case, ridden with cliché to add much to our understanding of the complex cultural forces at play in the country. Similarly, the narrative dicing, while handled with impressive dexterity and wisely avoiding the forced convergences that proved so popular (if artistically dubious) in the mid-aughts, seems principally designed to disguise the relative straightforwardness of the plotting. As the directors shift perspectives, showing us different pieces of the climactic event from the points of view of several characters, they generate a measure of narrative tension (what exactly happened?), but this needless complication of the telling, while never less than utterly coherent, is more impressive as a formal exercise than as a means to deepen our understanding of the characters or their situations.
But if, when viewed from a macro-level, Ajami is overwrought and undernourishing, when considered on a moment-to-moment basis, it’s far more enlightening. Shot on location and benefiting enormously from Boaz Yehonatan Yacov’s gruffly textured handheld camerawork, the film remains uniquely tuned to the details of place. From the shots of men setting up a makeshift lounge in an empty lot while kids kick a ball around and sheep bleat in the background, to the precise slang that peppers the character’s everyday speech, to the finely graded expressions that Yacov picks out on the character’s faces, the film presents the Ajami quarter as an authentically breathing organism. Similarly, the directors expertly evoke the feeling of a latent violence hovering just under the surface of the neighborhood, definitively establishing the tone in a gripping opening scene where a drive-by shooting erupts horribly into a seemingly placid city street.
But detail and specificity of setting will only take you so far as you’re willing to ride them and Copti and Shani quickly dissipate their sharp focus with their constant need to expand their purview and to play fancy with their plotting. If most films concerned with establishing a multifarious web of events and a head-spinningly complex narrative structure sacrifice specific detail for larger framework, then Ajami goes some way toward righting the balance, but it would take far greater artists than the present duo to make such an overambitious framework into a means for actually yielding, rather than inhibiting, insight into their subjects.