Copti's 'Ajami' well constructed

JIM SLOTEK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:00 PM ET

Violence eats its own tail in Ajami — a multilayered movie about the “other” Arab-Israeli conflict, the one inside Israel itself.

Indeed, some will be surprised to hear there are Israeli Arabs. This ethnic group includes Scandar Copti (a Palestinian and Israeli citizen), one of the movie’s co-directors and stars. It is a tense existence, encapsulated in this story of a Jaffa suburb, where Jews, Muslims and Christian characters all find themselves connected by random violence (none of it informed by anything as simple as jihad).

Ajami — an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film — is also a deceptive movie, one that introduces its characters in the heat of violence, allows us to make conclusions based on what we see, then shatters our assumptions in the telling of how that moment came about.

The movie opens with a drive-by shooting of a 15-year-old working on a car. It turns out he’d just bought the car from Omar (Shahir Kabaha), whose cafe-owner uncle had just shot and paralyzed a Bedouin gangster who’d demanded protection money. The vigilante act and blood oath it inspires eventually ends up in front of an Imam arbitrator, who concludes that Omar’s family owes the Bedouins more than $50,000 in exchange for a “cease-fire.” So Omar finds himself desperate for money, as does Malek (Ibrahim Frege). An illegal immigrant working in the shadows for a Christian shopkeeper, Malek’s mother is in a cancer hospital and he must come up with a similar amount of money to pay for a marrow transplant that could save her life.

Add to the mix at least two forbidden relationships. Omar is in love with a Christian girl Hadir (Ranin Karim), while Binj (Copti) is on the verge of being ostracized by his Arab friends for his relationship with an Israeli (the scenes where this is discussed in front of her, alternately in Arabic and Hebrew, encapsulate the Ajami neighbourhood’s fractious atmosphere beautifully).

There is the Jewish side of the coin, represented by the thuggish Dando (Eran Naim), a drug-enforcement officer who may or may not be dabbling in the trade, even as he’s trying to get to the bottom of the disappearance of his soldier brother.

And there is a do-the-right-thing moment, when a banal street altercation between a Jewish man and an itinerant group of young Arabs becomes a flashpoint in a moment of madness. All involved realize the death of a Jew at Arab hands will turn the tragedy into a media event and turn up police heat. Acts of desperation follow that speed up the collision course of Ajami’s various plots.

And when that collision occurs, several audience preconceived notions are dashed. The violence in Ajami is senseless and mostly unpremeditated. But the cold distrust each faction feels toward the other amid their uneasy existence provides fertile ground for ugly flashfires.

In the end, Ajami is a beautifully constructed filmic portrait of the shaky kind of peace one ends up with when all sides refuse to let go of their hate.

(This film is rated 14A)


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