"Ajami," a film named after a tough, mostly Arab section of Jaffa, Israel, is one of five Oscar nominees for best foreign language film. This distinction is shared with the Israeli films "Beaufort" in 2008, and, in 2009, the remarkable animated "Waltz With Bashir," reviewed here.
The film starts with a shooting and vendetta following the demand of a Bedouin family for protection money from an Arab restaurant. Along the way, various characters are forced to make wrenching choices: Omar (Shahir Kabaha), an Israeli Arab, in debt following the vendetta's financial settlement; Malek (Ibraham Frege), a West Bank Palestinian who needs money for his mother's medical care and crosses into Israel to work in the restaurant, and Dando (Eran Naim), an Israeli policeman whose younger brother is captured and killed by Palestinian militants. Omar and Malek are specifically in debt to Abu Elias (Yousef Sahwani), a powerful local figure and the father of Hadir (Ranin Karim). Abu Elias, a Christian Arab, is opposed to the romance between Omar, a Muslim, and his daughter.
The conflicts between these figures reflect more than those found in the mean streets of a grim urban area, since they are filtered through the divisions in Israeli society. They are also filtered through a non-linear narrative. Key scenes are revisited, adding more information and correcting previous assumptions. Our perspective becomes more complete, yet the film avoids making final judgments about characters caught in desperate circumstances.
The directors, Scandar Copti, an Israeli Arab who plays a role in the film, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, used local non-actors who achieve a raw authenticity that, combined with the technical innovations, makes "Ajami" gripping and challenging throughout.