“Ajami” is a crime drama with a “Babel”- like structure – it unfolds in five chapters, each telling a separate narrative from the point of view of different characters. It portrays a powerfully claustrophobic world, in which ordinary people struggle to better their lives against exceedingly tall odds.
Almost everyone in this film is trapped in some sense. At least two of the film’s protagonists are literally house-bound: one is being targeted for murder by a Bedouin gang and the other is a resident of the occupied West Bank working on the other side of the Green Line. Another character, an Israeli policeman, is searching in vain for his brother who has gone ominously missing. There are also two fatally star-crossed love affairs: one between a Palestinian and a Jewish Israeli and another between an Arab Muslim and an Arab Christian.
More than anything else, I experienced this film as a portrait of ethnic and religious communities in constant, tragic collision with one another. At times, it’s sometimes difficult to keep all of the complicated rivalries straight. There is tension between Bedouins and Palestinian Arabs, Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories, citizens of Arab Jaffa and citizens of Jewish Tel Aviv, Arab Muslims and Arab Christians. The Israel portrayed here is not simply a Jewish state – it is nothing less than a simmering multi-ethnic powder keg.
As a portrait of Israeli society, it’s a decidedly non-redemptive vision. You watch the drama play out, knowing deep down that nothing good will possibly come of any of this. And yet what I loved about this film its genuine heart. You can’t help feel a deep compassion for the humanity of these characters, no matter how flawed or broken they are. Even though it’s technically a crime drama, there are really no heroes and villains in “Ajami” per se – just ordinary, imperfect individuals doing their best to survive under increasingly dire circumstances.
I’m sure there will be those who understand this film as a reflection of the hopeless political situation in Israel/Palestine. But I think the true genius of the film is how it works on so many levels: as a crime thriller, a family drama, or a slice of socio-political commentary. Whichever way you choose to take it, it’s not a pretty picture. As befits a film directed jointly by a Jewish Israeli and a Christian Palestinian, however, it’s an exceedingly courageous statement.