The phrase senseless killing has, tragically, become a journalistic cliche, but if ever there's a death that shouldn't have happened it's the drive-by shooting of a teenage boy in the opening minutes of the potent and incendiary Israeli film Ajami. It's a sunny day, and the kid is bent over a car in front of his family's house when a vehicle rolls by and gunmen shoot him in the back. The bullets were intended for the boy's teenage cousin, Omar (Shahir Kabaha), an Israeli Arab who stood up to some Bedouin mobsters and is now on their hit list.
And the wailing in the street, of friends and neighbors, the innocent victim's sister and mother, spires off into the sky.
One of this year's five foreign-language Oscar nominees, Ajami was codirected by Scandar Copti, an Israeli Arab, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew. The film is in both Arabic and Hebrew. It wheels around in flashbacks and flash-forwards and describes a city, Jaffa, and its multiethnic Ajami neighborhood, that is rife with tension: Israelis and Palestinians, police and thugs, soldiers and shopkeepers, Jews, Christians and Muslims, moving into and out of one another's lives in ways that are at once intimate and innocent, and yet fraught with antagonism, wariness, the possibility of violence.
Using a cast of nonprofessionals who workshopped and rehearsed the story lines and character arcs for almost a year before filming, Copti and Shani deliver a tense, heart-wrenching, kaleidoscopic tale. There is Omar, who seeks to broker a peace pact with the Bedouins, an arrangement that would require a large sum of money and the intervention of a respected elder. Omar is secretly seeing Hadir (Ranin Karim), the beaming, beautiful daughter of a local restaurateur, Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani). Never mind that Omar and Hadir are both Arabs: Because he is Muslim and she is Christian, the relationship is forbidden, and when the father learns what is going on, he rages.
Then there is a Jewish police officer, Dando (Eran Naim), whose brother, a soldier, has gone missing. Dando and his fellow cops, plain-clothed and thuggish, are aggressive, arrogant, unrepentant. A Palestinian refugee working to save money for his mother's bone-marrow operation; a wealthy Palestinian and his Jewish girlfriend; drugs, revenge, family strife, street-corner arguments turned bloody . . . Ajami spins around, tracking this disparate and fractious community of good and bad, young and old, men and women, as fateful connections are made.
Yes, it's a Middle Eastern Babel or Crash, and its chapter sections and temporal shifts have an artifice at odds with the doggedly realistic filmmaking style. But Ajami brings its audience into a world where the cultural conflict is fierce, emotions run high, yet the hopeful vision of peaceful coexistence shines through the cracks.