Social commentators lament the lonely individualism of Americans, and pinpoint the loss of community as a source of malaise. We detach ourselves all too soon and completely from our roots, cocooning our lives within 24/7 jobs and the sort of technology that keeps us on call for business and emergencies but not for intimacy. And surely the custom of seeking advice from elders and support from the extended family is a thing of the past.

But the Arab-Israeli film Ajami may make you wonder if lonely individualism is really such a bad thing. In the small town in Israel where the Arab youth Omar lives with his widowed mother and two younger brothers, Malek and Nasri, the authority of the extended family, the clan, is supreme. If you need help, the clan will help you. But if you have offended another clan, everyone in your own is accountable. Is this not a good thing? Isn’t family honor a better safeguard of social unity than the impersonal workings of the state? Well...

In Ajami’s first scene, an assassin on a motorcycle shoots down a boy repairing Omar’s car. The child had offended nobody but had been mistaken for Omar. And whom had Omar offended? Nobody. But his uncle had recently shot and crippled a thug who was trying to extort money from him, and the thug’s Bedouin relatives, seeking revenge but temporarily unable to kill the uncle, settled for his nephew. Once they realize their mistake, do the Bedouins repent or desist? Not at all. The right blood hasn’t been spilled yet, so either Omar or his uncle must die.

Is the law called in? Of course not, for this is an intertribal matter that can be mediated by a well-meaning Muslim cleric who adjusts the blood debt to one payable in shekels. But how is Omar’s impoverished family to pay, especially when the mother falls ill and needs expensive medical treatment? Her three sons move to the old port town of Jaffa, close to the splendid new city Tel Aviv. (Ajami is a neighborhood in Jaffa.) Here Omar and Malek can work for a family friend, the bar owner Anan, a Christian Arab. But, since the pay is low, Omar resorts to petty larcenies and, eventually, to a drug deal that leads to a catastrophic encounter with some Jewish men in a car park. Who exactly are these Jews, whose leader is called Dando?

At this point, the moviemakers (in a narrative strategy similar to the one used in the American film Crash) deliberately jolt us by dropping Omar’s storyline and turning to the situation of a Jewish family, one of whose sons, a soldier, has disappeared. He may have been kidnapped or murdered. Just as the Arab brothers worry about their mother’s health, the Jewish family’s older son, Dando from the car park, is concerned about his father’s mental well-being, which has been shattered by the disappearance of one of his sons. Dando is a policeman, and he takes his family’s anxieties out on the Arabs he has to deal with on his daily rounds. We quickly realize that the car-park incident hasn’t occurred yet, and that Omar’s financial desperation and Dando’s anger are leading both families down a terrible road. And of course both men’s troubles are aggravated by the political friction between Arabs and Jews.

But there is something else that gnaws at both Omar and Dando: machismo or, as they perceive it, honor. When Omar’s mother urges him to flee the Bedouin, he tells her that a man does not run or let the fear of death rule his life. Meanwhile, Dando, after failing to persuade his distraught father to resume his role as patriarch, realizes that he will have to be the head of the family now, and that this new role will require him to exact some sort of vengeance if his brother has been killed.

The strength of this movie lies in its harsh fairness. Writer-directors Scandar Copti, an Arab, and Yaron Shani, a Jew, despise none of their characters and let none of them off the hook. Copti and Shani are alert to the ways good intentions can produce catastrophe in a land where too many people lack control of their lives and where the option of violence is accorded too much honor. For example: Omar falls in love with the daughter of Anan, his Christian employer. The girl, determined to respect tradition and her father’s wishes, keeps the relationship platonic, and Omar himself is willing to wait for a marriage that can occur only if Anan can be persuaded to overlook religious differences. The sweethearts remain chaste, but their longings impel them to exchange tender looks and furtive caresses, and it’s these very trifles that make the father aware of their love and persuade him that they’re not chaste. Another example: A Jewish neighbor approaches a bunch of Arab youths to ask one of them to get rid of the livestock that keep him awake at night. At first there is only rough banter but, because both disputants are afraid of each other, their male egos prompt them to get physical. The other Arab boys intervene to calm their friend down, but with so many bodies jostling one another, confusion takes over and a knife is pulled.

Visually, the movie is raw and immediate. Shot after shot portrays the Ajami neighborhood as an improvised, flimsy, dangerous place. Why make your dwelling secure when you might be uprooted by crime or politics at any moment? Omar and his friends seem to be living in a world of crash pads, and cinematographer Boaz Yaacov’s lighting creates a deliberately ugly texture of neon streaked with darkness. The hand-held camera movements abet the sense of menace. When Omar’s brother Malek does nothing more dangerous than haul some garbage to the restaurant’s dumpster, the camera follows him from behind like a stalker. Life is a jungle, Omar declares. “The strong eat the weak.” The very look of the movie forces us to agree with him, even though most of the characters treat one another with a traditional courtesy that might shame most Americans.

Some minor flaws mar Ajami. Because of its importance to the film’s climax, the soldier’s disappearance needs more examination than it gets. Omar’s younger brothers merit a closer look as well. The romance between Omar’s friend Binj (well played by co-director Copti) and a free-spirited Jewish girl serves to underline the theme of love thwarted by ethnic tensions, but these lovers become so interesting that I wished the roles had been expanded and deepened.

Nevertheless, this is a work both bitter and humane. That the talents of its creators, an Arab and a Jew, meshed so seamlessly may be the most hopeful thing about Ajami, a movie that mordantly reminds us that communities and clans may embrace and console—but that they can also crush.

Published in the 2010-05-21 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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