The first chapter is about what else, money. An Arab family owns a restaurant. A local hitman representing a powerful family enters their restaurant demanding their profits. The head of the family kills him in a kill or be killed situation. Given their culture and the robber’s connections, this was no ordinary act of violence and not an easily resolved situation. Acts of violent retaliation are planned. It is hard for me to gauge the subtleties and the messages offered by the directors but there are profound undercurrents here. The resolution of the robber’s death is an eye for an eye and in the end money is what is used to prevent further escalation of violence. Unfortunately the real victims are completely underprivileged and this further complicated their dilemma. There is no foreseeable escape for the family in danger, especially not with a 19 year old teenager, Omar (Shahir Kabaha) taking over the role of leader of the family as guardian of his mother and brother. Near the end of the chapter both feuding families rely on a judge to adjudicate their grievances. The judge makes several references to God’s satisfaction, all of which are tainted with money and all of which though hilarious to me would be frightening and deadly serious for those involved.
Chapter two is about Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a hard working illegal Muslim immigrant with a deep sense of respect, great courage and extraordinary family values. His mother is in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant or she will likely wither and die. Unfortunately in his neighborhood there is very little money to be made without either selling drugs or stealing, both options offering the risk of death of imprisonment. Further complicating the plot is Malek friendship with Omar. In the Arab culture it is customary to hug one’s friends and to kiss one’s family members, a tradition for the most part that has gone by the wayside and become part of the past here in America.
The third portion of Ajami is about Malek and Omar’s desperate attempt to make money for their families. They steal drugs from a murdered friend (Binj) only to discover in the middle of the transaction the white substance was not crystal meth as they suspected. It was in fact a worthless non-narcotic look-alike substitute. Making matters more interesting are the conversations of Israeli families about the war and life in the army. They make the point that when a child is killed in any instance; event or circumstance life seems to stop having meaning. The whole world ends and the remainder is only sadness and bitter loss. This is the directors’ (Scandar Copti, and Yaron Shani) message about the similarities of loss across religious and cultural borders. Death is a common denominator and a constant in the struggle not only of the Israelis and Palestinians, but among the poor and war ravaged universally. The families presented are closer and more caring and concerned than any I have seen but their tragedies always threaten to destroy the fabric and foundation of each collective. The desperate search for one man’s brother who is a disappeared soldier is moving and suspenseful. The emotionality is cogent as can be. We can literally feel his pain.
Part four begins retrospective of the storyline to date. Omar and Malek are cooking with Binj (Scandar Copti, the director nonetheless!) when Malek receives the call about his mother’s illness. Binj lets them go straight to the hospital. Meanwhile night time arrives and Binj takes his smoking hot girlfriend clubbing. In mid-dance Binj finds out his brother was a witness and possible culprit in a stabbing that happened earlier in the film. An older Israeli father of three confronted several Arabs about the sheep they sold him under the auspice it was a quiet animal. Much to the man’s surprise and dismay sheep bleat 31 (24-7, 365). While arguing one of the Arabs stabbed the Israeli man in the heart causing him instant trauma and death. As with each chapter we have quick glimpses of news reports of death and crime on television. This is almost like South Central Los Angeles except transplanted to urban Tel Aviv. One of Binj’s conversations is about Arabs miscegenating with Jews and how much the very thought disgusts Arabs. They view Jews as oppressors and thieves. Since Binj’s brother is incarcerated for illegally selling a sheep and for possibly being involved in the murder of an Israeli man, Binj’s apartment is raided by Israeli police. They are searching for narcotics. They leave empty handed but apparently Binj did have a secret stash of cocaine. In order to remove the evidence he mixes flour and sugar together and snorts the remaining powder. He overdosed and had myocardial infarction, better known as a heart attack. This explains how Malek found his drugs and the scene quickly turns to his death at the site of the drug deal. Omar escapes barely and with enough grief to kill anyone.
The fifth and final chapter begins with the godfather prototype Abu-Elias (Youssef Sahwani) discovering his employees’ nefariousness. Abu-Elias is a Christian Arab whose reputation is the most important thing in his life. He thrives on being "better" than Muslim Arabs and on having a connection both with the Jewish and the Muslim world. Throughout the film to this point he has appeared as a benefactor and as a savior to Malek and Omar. This all changes once he discovers his daughter is in love with Omar whom he considers to be a nothing and a potentially disastrous blemish to his reputation and his daughter’s future. In Act five all of the details missing from this often times puzzling film are revealed and everything comes to make sense.
Never before had I watched such a complicated whirlwind of a movie. Ajami has it all, love, sex, madness, honor, family, loyalty, betrayal, death, mystery, suspense, murder, and so much more. It is a never-ending stream of action and suspense. Often times while watching I expected to feel sadness or remorse or outrage. Instead I simply feel enlightened. I did not realize the divide between Christian and Muslim Arabs in Israel before this. I always wondered about the Arab sections of major Israeli cities. This film feels more like an exposé intended to inform the entire world. I would not compare Ajami to any major American film; it is a special picture without comparison. Although I would never say Ajami is easy to watch or easy to understand, it is so rich in so many unexpected ways that this long and often dreary ride is worth the price of admission and more.
Copyright © 2010 Screen Media, Inc. All rights reserved.
Certain product data © 2010-present Screen Media, Inc. For personal use only. All rights reserved.