Combustible Celluloid
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With: Shahir Kabaha, Ibrahim Frege, Fouad Habash, Youssef Sahwani, Ranin Karim, Eran Naim, Scandar Copti
Written by: Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani
Directed by: Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Arabic, Hebrew with English subtitles
Running Time: 120
Date: 05/22/2009

Ajami (2009)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Good Neighbors

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Scandar Copti, a Palestinian, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, teamed up to direct this crime drama. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film, which seems more a result of that behind-the-scenes achievement than anything that occurs onscreen. Indeed, comparing it to some of Amos Gitai's better films (Yom Yom, Alila, etc.) it feels rather graceless, and compared to something like City of God, it feels practically inert.

But the film is still effective in its own, small way. It follows several characters in five overlapping chapters, all set in one multi-ethnic section of Jaffa, near Tel Aviv. It begins as a man working on a car is gunned down in the street. It turns out that the real target was the neighbor who sold him the car, Omar (Shahir Kabaha), an Arab Israeli. Worse, Omar is in love with Hadir (Ranin Karim), who is the right race, but the wrong religion; they can't be together. There's another revenge shooting, a botched drug sale, a cop searching for his missing brother, and another illicit romance, between a Jew and a Palestinian.

It's a complex storyline, and it's easy to get confused, but the directors handle it with up-close realism and even some tenderness, when it could have been a slick, slam-bang Tarantino/Guy Ritchie-type affair. The actors are all non-professionals, and they seem to bring their own real-life fears and frustrations into the material. These people are all neighbors, bound by the same geographical area, and yet they remain permanently separated by invisible lines: race and religion. The movie further separates its characters based on the law; characters are either on one side or another, and often they can't help it, any more than they can help the other factors. Some characters are forced to deal with shady characters or drugs in order to get their lives back on track.

The co-directors are clearly passionate, but their passion sometimes fails to cut through the film itself. It sometimes feels overwritten, and sometimes a bit too distant (a bit too much focus on "documentary-like"), and it always feels too long. But many scenes do work, thanks to the depiction of the neighborhood itself. The place very often springs to life, buoying the story and characters at the same time. Ajami is an admirable achievement, taking simplistic, old-fashioned material and passionately adapting it to make it urgent and relevant.

Kino Video released the DVD and Blu-Ray. Extras include a half-hour featurette on the non-professional actors and their experience on the film, plus deleted scenes, a trailer, and a stills gallery.

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