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Film Review


The relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians has been mostly unremitting violence and tragedy. Neither can see the other has a people deserving of respect and of peace. Every time we think we are about to witness progress toward some sort of a solution, one side or the other, or both, sabotage it. Hamas wants nothing less than to drive the Jews into the sea, and the Israeli settler movement is convinced that God ordained that they should have all of the Holy Land. The extremists control the agenda, and those who seek dialog and a middle ground are often branded as traitors. It is as if God has cursed both and condemned them to endless conflict. I don't mean to draw a moral equation between the two sides, because the Palestinians, as Golda Meir famously said, have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Further, no country could tolerate the continued suicide bombing attacks on their civilians, hence the wall, which has stopped the bombings but made life even more miserable for the Palestinians. After Gaza was given back, major rocket and mortar attacks began from that area, now under control of Hamas. No country could ever accept that situation, but the continued Israeli construction of settler housing in the West Bank also poisons any hope of peace.

Against this grim backdrop, a Palestinian and an Israeli filmmaker, Scandi Copti and Yaron Shani, have produced a complex, deeply moving film that looks at two families, Palestinian and Israeli, who are simply trying to survive and keep their children out of harm's way.  The film is set in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, a mixed, largely Arab, poor neighborhood. The Palestinian family's mother, with her three sons, is fiercely protective of them, and furious when they venture out without her knowledge.  The oldest, Omar, becomes involved in a blood feud caused by his uncle shooting a thug from a powerful Bedouin family, who attempted to extort money at gunpoint.  Omar becomes the target of the vengeful family, and they attempt to kill him.  They approach an influential Palestinian powerbroker, who declares a truce, and convenes a meeting of both families with an Islamic judge. The negotiations are fascinating, alone worth seeing this film just for these scenes. They finally fashion an agreement, which requires Omar's family to pay a substantial sum of money to the Bedouin family. But Omar's family is poor and the amount is well beyond their ability.  So Omar decides to sell drugs. But Omar is in love with the beautiful daughter of a Palestinian Christian family, and he is Muslim. Her father is furious at her for associating with Omar, and forbids her to see him again. His order to her says much about their society: "do not bring shame to our family, never mind your feelings". As if all of this isn't enough, Omar's mother desperately needs surgery, so Omar's middle brother, Malek, sneaks into Israel to work in a restaurant, which develops into a key part of the story.

The Israeli family is headed by Dando, an undercover policeman working in the neighborhood. The Israeli police are overwhelmed and undermanned in their attempt to control crime and terrorism, and all the policeman are very much on the edge. Dando is a tough, hardened cop, brutal with criminal suspects, but at home dotes on his young daughter. There is a lovely scene of him giving her a bath, which shows his loving side.  He is very stressed, home less and less, and his marriage rocky.  And his younger brother, an Army conscript, is missing and has apparently been kidnapped by terrorists, which has caused his father to sink into a deep depression.

So although the clash of the two cultures is the backdrop of the film, the stories show how good, but desperate people are forced into bad choices, with tragic consequences. The stories converge, often unexpectedly, and sometimes the film maker shows the same scene, but from different characters' view.  If Robert Altman had to remake City of God, it would resemble Ajami. It is gritty, highly realistic, always riveting, yet sympathetic to the characters, who are fully developed and believable.  Most of the characters are played by non actors, and they are uniformly marvelous. Pacing, editing, and camera work are outstanding.  The sound track is lovely, principally Arabic music, with its melodic, mournful sounds, so appropriate to this tragic story.  I loved this film, and consider it one of the best I've seen this year.  It seems to me to be an important statement, a brilliant piece of art that illuminates a world utterly unfamiliar to most of us. This is a rare Palestinian/Israeli collaboration, where art transcends conflict, if only temporarily. It's astonishing that so many fine films have come out of Israel in the past three years: Beaufort, The Syrian Bride, The Lemon Tree, The Band's Visit, and the incomparable Waltz with Bashir, to name a few. And now Ajami; don't miss it!  Playing at the Lumiere.

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