The makers of “Ajami” have found their battleground in their own back yard; Ajami is a neighborhood in Jaffa, a coastal community immediately south of Tel Aviv.
The co-directors are Israeli, although Scandar Copti is Arab and Yaron Shani is Jewish. They’ve homed in on the Ajami neighborhood, with its Arab- majority population, for the setting of their “hypertext movie,” a story with different characters who criss-cross each other’s unhappy paths.
The film is divided into different parts, which do not unfold in strict chronological order. A war is going on, and the opening burst of violence — a street shooting — is quickly revealed to us as the third piece in an ongoing eye-for-an-eye exchange.
Not only that, but the dead man has been shot by mistake; the real target, a teenager named Omar (Shahir Kabaha), must now try to settle this feud without more bloodshed. In a remarkable sequence, we watch a tribal judge improvise a settlement between the aggrieved parties.
Unfortunately, the settlement means Omar must find a huge amount of money, and the only real option for him is to sell drugs. He’s also faced with the reality that his strict employer is not going to consider allowing Omar to marry his daughter (Ranin Karim), because one family is Muslim, the other Christian.
Also pulled into this vortex (along with at least a dozen other key characters) is an Israeli policeman (Eran Naim), whose toughness on the job is eventually explained by his family’s own traumatic situation.
Nominated for the Oscar in this year’s foreign-language category (officially representing Israel), “Ajami” is passionate and ambitious, if not always easy to follow. The filmmakers used nonactors to fill the roles, and the faces and places never feel anything less than authentic.
At first, I found the juggled storytelling irrelevant, but eventually you get the point: See a single act of violence and it’s easy to assign blame. See acts of violence as part of an interlocking mosaic, in which we learn causes and reasons long after witnessing the incident, and the larger issues of ignorance, tribalism and superstition begin to grow clearer.
“Ajami” is a tough experience to sit through; it offers no comforting conclusions and little sense that tolerance is in danger of breaking out any time soon. The viewers are going to have to work on that themselves.