Thursday, 22 October 2009

ajami (w&d scandar copti, yaron shani)

Ajami has apparently been nominated for the best foreign film at next year's Oscars. Already. Something of a curse, by and large, as it signals a worthy if uninspiring piece that has done enough to suggest its importance without in any way shaking up Hollywood's great and good.

As it opens, Ajami, a crime drama, has more than a touch of that perennial non-Oscar winner Scorcese about it. It promises to be gritty, high-octane film making, with a swaggering but loveable gangster as its lead. The film's structure then moves in a sideways direction. The narrative is broken up into chapters, which float in time as they describe a drugs deal gone wrong in black humoured fashion.

Ajami is named after a suburb of Jaffa, a predominantly Arabic part of Israel. The film is co-directed by an Arab and a Jewish Israeli, and the narrative shifts between the country's religious communities (a key character is also Christian). Probably more than its adept and subtle aesthetics, this multi-faith approach explains the Oscar nomination. But the way in which the film reveals the complexities of modern Israel, a state more sectarian than anyone realises (with the constant focus on the Palestinian territories) is impressive. A Jewish man engages in what seems like an amiable debate about his neighbour's animals, which keep him awake, and the debate ends in bloodshed. Another man (played by one of the directors) is a Palestinian with a Jewish girlfriend, spending half his life dancing in Tel Aviv nightclubs and the other half hanging out in his Palestinian hood. Language creates a constant faultline, and the problems the country faces come across as, in many ways, even more complex than they are portrayed in the media.

Ajami is a slow burner, and the fractured narrative is sometimes challenging, but in the end its both a film which succeeds in being both politically and cinematically powerful, and perhaps deserves better than to be honoured by the elite of a Hollywood Academy.

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