America has no monopoly on mean streets. In 2003, City of God took moviegoers on a chilling (but beautiful) tour through Rio de Janeiro’s toughest neighborhood. In 2009, two Israeli filmmakers, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, delivered a disturbing portrait of a neighborhood in Tel Aviv where the problems that Americans usually associate with the Middle East are mostly background noise. The immediate issues are those of any tough neighborhood: loyalty, protecting the ones you love and survival.
Along with A Prophet, The White Ribbon and The Milk of Sorrow, Ajami was a finalist for the 2010 foreign language Oscar, losing to the Argentine submission, The Secret in Their Eyes.
Studio: Kino Lorber Films
Film Length: 120 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: Hebrew and Arabic DTS-HD MA 5.1
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Package: Keepcase inside cardboard slipcover (side-inserted)
Theatrical Release Date: Sept. 17, 2009 (Israel); Feb. 3, 2010 (U.S. limited)
Blu-ray Release Date: Aug. 24, 2010
Ajami is a neighborhood in Jaffa, the ancient port that is now part of Tel Aviv. Its inhabitants include Muslims, Jews and Christians. Both Arabic and Hebrew are spoken, and many residents are bilingual. Since the actors in Ajami are non-professionals, I am departing from my usual custom of including their names in parentheses after their characters, on the theory that it’s hard enough for an English-speaking reader to keep all the names straight. A list of the actors can be found at IMDb.
The film focuses on various people in the Ajami district whose paths cross and intertwine over a period of several weeks. The structure most closely resembles that of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, because the narrative routinely shifts from one character’s story to another’s. Time rewinds, perspective changes, and the same event may be replayed from a different angle, usually with different information. The film is divided into five untitled chapters, plus a prologue.
An occasional narrator of the film is Nasri, a young Arab boy who lives with his mother, ailing grandfather and older brother, Omar. Nasri is a budding amateur artist. He draws the life around him as panels of a comic strip, and they need no embellishment to be frightening. In the prologue, a shocking act of violence occurs right outside his family’s door. The violence in Ajami is entirely uncinematic; as in real life, it’s quick, surprising and over before anyone realizes what is happening.
The violence depicted in the prologue injured the wrong party. The intended victim was Nasri’s 19-year-old brother, Omar, because the attackers were targeting the oldest able-bodied male in Nasri’s family. Their uncle owned a coffee bar from which a bedouin gang member attempted to extort protection money, and the ensuing conflict left both the gang member and the uncle permanently injured. Now the gang is seeking revenge. Nasri relates this history matter-of-factly, in voiceover.
Fearing for his safety and that of his family, Omar follows the usual course and obtains a gun. Then he turns to the only influential person he knows: his employer, a bar owner named Abu Elias. An intriguing figure whose presence cuts across multiple story lines in Ajami, Abu Elias may not appear wealthy by American standards, but he’s more affluent than any other character in the film, which, in this world, makes him rich and powerful. He also has influential connections in both the criminal and the political realms (to the extent these are distinct, which is unclear).
Abu Elias arranges a cease-fire and is then able to convene a special “tribunal” in which a Muslim judge arbitrates the competing claims of Omar’s family and the bedouin gang, reducing them to financial terms and ultimately deciding that Omar owes $57,000 (the subtitles helpfully provide the conversion). The scene is remarkable, because in essence the Muslim judge performs the same function that American law suits are supposed to fulfill, reducing personal injury to financial terms. But he does it much faster and at far less cost, and who’s to say that his result is any less accurate or equitable?
In any case, Omar does not have the money, and it is far more than someone like Omar can raise. He has only three weeks to satisfy the judge’s decree. What can he do?
Enter Malek. Just turned sixteen, Malek also works for Abu Elias, but he does not live in the Ajami district. In fact, he isn’t a legal resident of Tel Aviv, but an illegal employed by Abu Elias, presumably for the usual reason that employers hire illegal aliens. Malek periodically travels from his home in Palestinian territory with other illegals, spending several weeks at a time in Ajami, where he sleeps in the storeroom at Abu Elias’ bar or sometimes stays with Binj, the bar’s resident cook. Abu Elias treats Malek with fatherly concern, especially now that Malek’s mother is ill. He even throws him a birthday party.
But Malek’s mother needs surgery, and the hospital sends her home, because nothing more can be done until someone can pay for the operation. Abu Elias says that both he and the Palestinian Authority will contribute, but God must provide the rest.
In desperation, Malek turns to a solution common in poor neighborhoods the world over: selling drugs. Through events involving Binj and the police (the specifics of which are best left for the viewer to discover), Malek has learned where to find a large quantity of crystal meth. He asks for help from his older co-worker, Omar, who, as we already know, also needs to raise cash quickly. Malek and Omar secure the drugs, find a buyer and proceed to the exchange. But something isn’t right . . .
Somewhere in Ajami, a dispute arises between neighbors. Violence erupts. Someone is injured. The police are called. One of the cops who arrives at the scene is named Dando.
As he goes about his daily routine, Dando carries a heavy burden. His youngest brother, a soldier in the army, has vanished, and Dando’s family is crumbling under the emotional strain of not knowing whether he’s alive or dead. Dando’s sister bears the burden of caring for her tearful mother and prostrate father, and she resents it, but Dando has his own wife and children to look after. All of the family’s spare time is consumed with searching for their missing son and brother.
One day, a professional army contact tells Dando they have a tip about the location of a soldier’s body. Dando races to the site, shedding all professional decorum and acting like every victim he’s ever restrained at a crime scene. Then he waits in agony with his entire family while the medical team examines the remains. Most of all, he wants to know who tipped the army about the location. It must have been an Arab.
Several additional storylines are developed before Ajami reaches its bleak conclusion. We learn more about Binj, the cook for Abu Elias, who turns out to be connected indirectly to the neighborhood violence to which Dando responded. And Abu Elias is shocked to discover that his teenage daughter, Hadir, has been secretly dating a young man – someone her father considers wholly unsuitable. In response to this discovery, Abu Elias will avail himself of certain resources that only a well-connected individual would have at his command.
There are undoubtedly resonances and references in Ajami that an outsider will miss, just as there are nuances in a work like David Simon’s and Ed Burns’ The Wire that only Americans would notice. But it requires no cultural common ground to observe that all of the characters in Ajami are dealing only with what is immediately in front of them. None of them pauses to take a larger view, and all of them act on emotion: usually fear, anger or desperation. As we jump from one standpoint to another, we gradually realize how little of the world around him each person sees. Those limited views will eventually bring several of the characters, each of them with good intentions, into a deadly collision.
The sole exception is young Nasri, the occasional narrator. He alone has intimations of a larger perspective, probably because the activity of drawing the world around him causes him to sit back and consider it in moments of relative calm. But Nasri is a kid who doesn’t yet understand everything he sees, and he has no one to guide him. When he tries to share his concerns with his older brother, he’s brushed aside.
Directors Copti and Shani, who reportedly spent seven years bringing Ajami to the screen, and also wrote and edited the film, are realists. Their immersion in their characters’ daily lives is too thorough for them to offer some sort of “solution” or reassuring ending. Still, it cannot be accidental that the final shot of Ajami is of a character alone on a street, who, having narrowly escaped from a scene of tremendous confusion and violence, is frantically looking around in all directions. “What do I do now?” The question seems to hang in the air. As everyone must come to learn, considering the consequences of how you answer that question is a responsibility we avoid at our peril, even in Ajami. The final line in a film about shifting perspectives is pregnant with possibilities: “Open your eyes.”
I saw Ajami theatrically, and Kino’s Blu-ray is a superb presentation of the film. The film was shot in true documentary style, using multiple hand-held cameras, on the streets and in the buildings of the neighborhoods portrayed. The non-professional actors were never given a script. Instead, they were placed in situations, and each was told as much as their character would know; all of the dialogue was then improvised, and the cameramen’s job was to keep up with the action. (The cinematographer, Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov, is a veteran of documentary filmmaking.)
The result is a remarkable degree of realism and a genuine sense of “you are there”. However, for viewers weary of the “shaky cam” style currently fashionable in American film and TV, I hasten to add that you will not find it here. These were professional documentary cameramen, and they had steady hands. Their task was to stick closely to each character’s point of view, so that you routinely see things as he or she sees it. That technique is thematically central to Ajami, which portrays a world in which everyone is limited to a singular perspective, and no one is able to see beyond what’s immediately in front of him or her.
Within these technical constraints, the cameras in Ajami captured a soft but remarkably detailed picture, and the Blu-ray fully reproduces it. Scenes like the bar owned by Abu Elias or Binj’s cluttered apartment or the many locales where Dando and his family pass out fliers with the missing brother’s picture come alive because they look like the real places that they are, not sets designed for actors. Literally ever scene in Ajami has a snap of authenticity that American filmmakers would kill for (and often fight with pencil-pushers over the location budgets necessary to obtain). The detail in the backgrounds is key to conveying that feeling.
The color palette is relatively limited, and earth tones dominate. The film is set in an arid climate and a poor neighborhood, where dust and grit are permanent companions. Simply as a technical matter, I suspect the filmmakers had to choose between a colorful image and one that was clean and detailed. They went with the latter, which was the right choice. Whatever film stocks they used, they were able to get good shadow detail and acceptable black levels even in night scenes, and these are accurately reproduced.
Consistent with its documentary style, Ajami has a front-centered mix with relatively little surround presence. However, unlike some front-centered mixes that are confined to the center speaker, Ajami’s is spread across the front soundstage, which makes for a more pleasing and involving experience. While I can’t comment on the fidelity of the dialogue reproduction, the specific vocal quality and rhythm of each personality comes through with great clarity and character. On the rare occasion when there is a significant sound in the environment (e.g., a scene in a disco with a pounding beat), the soundtrack has the appropriate presence for a track presented in DTS lossless.
Ajami: The Story of the Actors (SD; 1.78:1) (29:18). Hisham Suleiman, an actor, theater director and the film’s acting coach, describes the extensive program of workshops used to train the cast of non-professionals who appear in the film and, ultimately, to cast the lead parts. Almost all of the leads are interviewed about their experience, and they are frank and direct in their observations.
Deleted Scenes (HD) (23:07). Ten scenes are provided. Some are extensions of existing scenes, while others appear to be entirely separate. There is no commentary or other explanation for their deletion, but given the description of the directors’ working methods in “The Story of the Actors”, it’s reasonable to assume that they shot many hours of material from which the final film was then pieced together in the editing room. These ten scenes are probably only a sample of what could have been provided.
Stills. There are 24 production stills. The format and selection suggest old-time “lobby cards”.
Trailer (HD). The film’s trailer is included as a separate extra. No other trailers are on the disc.
Ajami is the second foreign language Blu-ray I have reviewed from the newly merged Kino Lorber (the first was Home), and it is another admirable disc. Kino Lorber has obviously paid attention to how major studios produce Blu-rays and learned what to do and what to avoid. Their discs load quickly and go directly to a simple menu with no lead-in trailers or other advertising material and no elaborate Java code that takes minutes to load. The film is presented with excellent audio/video quality, and the extras are informative rather than promotional. The people at Kino Lorber seem to understand that a film like Ajami can’t be used to cross-sell other films or tie-in merchandise. Their focus is on delivering the cinematic and emotional experience. What more can one ask?
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub
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