Friday, February 05, 2010

Ajami's Hard Streets Hurt Soul


Now that the Academy Award nominations have been announced there is a lot of debate over whether Avatar or The Hurt Locker will come out on top. Instead of weighing in on that discussion I want to focus on the one nomination that brought me the most joy Tuesday...Ajami’s nomination for Best Foreign Film. The film was released in New York on Wednesday and is expanding to Los Angeles in the coming weeks. Hopefully the Academy Award nomination will help to expand its theatrical run to an even wider release before it hits DVD.

I was fortunate enough to catch Ajami at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. After reviewing my initial selections, I decided I needed to add a few more foreign films into the mix. So I traded in my ticket for Drew Barrymore’s Whip It and took a chance on Ajami. Needless to say it was one of the smartest moves I made in since I started attending the festival back in 2001. The decision almost made up for me passing on tickets to films such as Whale Rider and Brokeback Mountain a few years back…almost. Hey, sometimes it is tough to tell what films will be a good if you simple go by the brief write up in the festival’s program book…but I digress.

Ajami is co-directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, one is of Palestinian decent while the other is an Israeli Jew, and their vastly different backgrounds offer a very unique feel to the film. The conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians have been widely documented on a global scale but rarely do we see what goes on daily in average neighborhoods. Ajami looks at how the lives of seemingly separate individuals are intertwined. There is the story of a family who is doomed to pay for one uncle’s heroic act. Another story looks at an Arab who wants to live in Israel. There is also the tale of a cop who is desperate to find his missing brother. To give any more of the plot away would be a great disservice to the film.

Ajami is a film very much in the same vein as City of God. The majority of the film is set in Jaffa the crime ridden section of Ajami. There are corrupt Jewish police officers, organized gangs, Palestinians working illegally, etc. The fascinating thing about the people living in Jaffa is, despite their profession and/or social class, how deep their faith runs. In fact, one of the most shocking things about the film is how much religion factors into everyone’s daily life. Every action is said to be in Allah’s name. Allah name is often used to justify a lot of the criminal activity in Jaffa. This makes for a fascinating contrast in many of the characters that inhabit the film.

The majority of the cast consist amateur performers from the area where the film is set. The non-professionals do a really good job drawing the audience into their world. The film's non-linear storyline also help to enhance the overall impact of certain characters. Ajami does not make any grand political statements nor does it choose sides. Instead it provides a fascinating, and at times heartbreaking, look at how corruption and violence can ruin communities no matter where in the world you are.

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