Israel (2009) Dirs. Scandar Copti & Yaron Shani

A young Israeli Arab boy Nasri (Fouad Habash) is shown drawing a detailed but gruesome picture while claiming he can foresee the future. We then see five stories based around the events of the Ajami neighbourhood of Jaffa, which seemingly seem loosely connected until they come together in the final act.

In the first, a young lad is shot in a drive by shooting but the assassins got the wrong person – they were after his older brother Omar (Shahir Kabaha) in revenge for Nasri’s uncle shooting a Bedouin thug trying to extort money from him. The second story features a Palestinian lad Malek (Ibrahim Frege) who is illegally employed by local restaurateur Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani) to raise money for his mother bone marrow transplant operation. In the third chapter when an elderly Jewish resident is stabbed, one of the culprits forces his brother Binj (Scandar Copti) to hide some drugs for him but when he is found dead it is believed he is murdered. The fourth chapter looks at Abu Elias’s daughter Hadir (Ranin Karim) falls in love with Omar but as he is a Muslim and she is a Christian, Abu Elias forbids their union. He devises a plan to get rid of Omar by having him deliver some drugs in a fake drop off which is the main thread of the final chapter.

Phew. It probably sounds complicated written out like that and with the non-linear narrative, revealing each portion from an alternate perspective from another cast member a may seem like a headache. But once one gets used to the format this unravels as a curious tale of crime and religious conflict which will make sense when the final credits role. Remarkably this is the debut from Scandar Copti (a Palestinian) and Yaron Shani (an Israeli Jew) yet has all the confidence of a long time filmmaker. The use of non-professional actors and the documentary style filming infuses the film with a gritty realism and chilling authenticity, helped by the use of the various differing languages spoken, in the corrupt dealings of a feuding community.

The story is a multi-layered affair which is quite hard to summarise (as demonstrated above) without retelling the whole plot or spoiling anything. Then again the haphazard structure offers its own spoilers by killing off characters in one chapter only for them to resurface later on. But the beauty of the story telling is how deceptive the earlier incidents are as nothing, as ever, is as it seems. There is little room for character development since there are some many angles to cover but there is enough time given to the main players for the viewer to get a decent take on them. If there is a minor complaint it is that there are some areas which would have made for either a larger focus in the story or perhaps could have even been a feature length film in its own right. Specifically the Romeo and Juliet romance between Omar and Hadir, since the Middle East is a very theocratic region, this would have been a great foundation for a gripping drama.

Nonetheless, there is plenty of other material here which makes for an intriguing film and while some of it is familiar fare, the setting makes it feel fresh. It is this view into a world which most of us may have only seen previously through news reports. If one is expecting to see something similar to neighbouring Iran, with the women covered head to in burkas and the elderly men bedecked in religious robes – think again. Israel is shown here as just as much as a modern society as here in the west and while the drugs and gang warfare mentality may appear incongruous to our eyes, we are reminded of our setting with the constant praises and blessings to God which dominate many a conversation. But whatever pious beliefs these people have, they pale in comparison to the lure of power and money.

Ajami is a film of many layers which takes many risks with its narrative and pulls it off with aplomb. The story structure will appeal to the art house lover while the gritty crime drama should find some new fans among those who enjoyed the likes of Gomorrah, Johnny Mad Dog and City Of God.