Ajami, Israel's entry for the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, lost out to Argentina's The Secret in Their Eyes. But that doesn't mean you should skip over this electrifying and decidedly downbeat slice of life and death in Ajami - the Jaffa, Israel, neighborhood of the title. First-time directors Scander Copti (a Palestinian living in Israel) and Yaron Shani (an Israeli Jew) add the weight of their own personally divergent backgrounds to a sprawling tale that reflects on the virulent pathology of violence endemic to the Holy Land.
Working with a battalion of mostly nonprofessional actors and a bare-bones script (allowing for improvisation), these two unlikely directorial partners manage to lay to ruin both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian argument while simultaneously crafting a deeply affecting film that sides only with the utter absurdity and fruitlessness of the conflict. War is hell, to be sure, but the Catch-22-esque idiocies of planned battle are trumped, again and again, by an armed conflict that has inured the two sides to the senselessness of their perpetual martyrdom.
Ajami, shot in a deeply cinema-verité style by cinematographer Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov, unfolds in flashback and flash-forward, snaking its way through an ensemble cast of everyday Jaffa residents. They include young narrator Nasri (Fouad Habash), who witnesses a neighbor gunned down by killers who believe the young man to be Nasri's brother. Petty misunderstandings, then bullets, and then blood pour out of this initial, accidental murder like an arterial spray from the neck of a sacrificial lamb.
All the characters are unknowingly at odds with one another. Omar (Shahir Kabaha) is an Israeli hell-bent on avenging the murder of a family member by a Palestinian crime family. Dando (Eran Naim) is a Jewish cop, and Binj (director Copti) a smart Palestinian wooing his Israeli flame. The film's tone is ripped straight from hearts and headlines.
It's always been difficult for those in the West to comprehend the cycle of violence that's so deeply ingrained in the Jews' and Palestinians' warring, seemingly counterproductive factions. Ajami doesn't really make it any easier for us to understand - violence is a virus, the film seems to say, and it infects everything and everyone that comes into contact with it. But it does place the audience squarely amid the myriad horrors of a land and a conflict predicated, it appears, on little more than an age-old blood feud - and Joseph Heller's famous concept.