Caught On Jaffa’s Mean Streets
Special To The Jewish Week
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When you hear about the latest collaboration between a Palestinian filmmaker and his Israeli counterpart, the last thing you would expect to see is a gritty urban crime film. On the other hand, as Tolstoy observed that you can tell a lot about a nation by the state of its prisons, you can learn a lot about a culture by its crime fiction. After all, as the new Israeli film “Ajami” reminds us forcefully, the reasons that people enter into criminal activity speak pretty loudly about the most elemental forces at play in their daily lives.

“Ajami,” which opens on Feb. 3, is a first feature for both its co-directors, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani. The film, which has been submitted by the Israeli film industry as its candidate for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, seems at first glance to be a Scorsesian meditation on the shortness of youth in a crime-ridden ghetto like the Ajami section of Jaffa. The precipitating action of the plot is a family blood feud that spirals out of control when a small boy is mistakenly shot and killed in the street in front of the house of Omar (Shahir Kabaha) and his family. Since Omar may have been the intended target, he is forced to seek help from a powerful family friend.

Gradually, we are introduced to a complex network of interlinked stories involving Omar’s friends and family, including Malek, a young Palestinian undocumented worker who is trying to raise money for an operation for his mother, a “connected” restaurateur who employs both Omar and Malek, and a Jewish cop whose brother may have been kidnapped by terrorists. Add to the mix a shipment of cocaine, apparently dirty cops and multiple betrayals, and you have a recipe for either paint-by-numbers mayhem or something more complex.

Happily, Copti and Shani have the latter in mind. “Ajami” has an intricate narrative structure that combines radical shifts in point of view with flashbacks and flash-forwards to great effect. Gradually, very gradually, we become aware of the labyrinthine interconnections between characters and events as the filmmakers deftly explore the multiplicity of motivations behind their characters actions. Copti chips in with a bright and clever performance as Binj, at first glance a light-headed slacker; the slow revelation of his real nature is typical of the film’s structural inventiveness. 

The result is a fugue-like story of thwarted dreams, of individuals acting out of misconceived self-interest, unable or unwilling to communicate their intentions until only violence is left.

Copti and Shani, who also co-wrote and co-edited the film, have undoubtedly spent a lot of time looking at American crime films of the ’70s — those murky, neurotic tales of urban paranoia made most famously by Lumet, Coppola, Schrader and Scorsese.

“Ajami” has the dark and dirty look of “Blue Collar” and “Taxi Driver” and the slightly off-balance frenzy of “Serpico” and “Mean Streets.” At times the sheer nervous energy of their visual style — zip pans, frantic handheld camera and a plethora of underlit cityscapes — threatens to overwhelm the attention of an audience that is already being taxed by a kaleidoscopic narrative. But at its best “Ajami” has the same frenetic freshness of the early works of those “movie brats” who transformed American film with their freewheeling approach to familiar genre material.

Ultimately, “Ajami” is a film of considerable promise. With its vision of urban interconnectedness, it is reminiscent of Paul Haggis’ “Crash,” without that film’s gaseous pomposity and self-satisfied smugness, and it makes an interesting inversion of the moral universe of the classic American crime films of Don Siegel. In Siegel’s world, everyone is morally compromised, a bit soiled or worse; in the world of Copti and Shani, one gradually learns that most people are acting out of misperceived but sincere interests. As Jean Renoir famously says in “Rules of the Game,” “Everyone has their reasons. That’s the tragedy of it.”

“Ajami” opens on Wednesday, Feb. 3 at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. For information, call (212) 627-2035.

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