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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Call Me Israel
by Donald Levit

Titled from a problematic, down-at-heels quarter of Jaffa, documentary-quality fiction Ajami reflects the multi-ethnic and –religious makeup of its characters, its hundred per cent amateur actors, its Arabic and Hebrew dialogue, and its Israeli Jewish and Israeli Palestinian filmmakers Scandar Copti (who also acts in this movie) and Yaron Shani. Trailing international awards and festival inclusions as well as Oscar hopes, it opens theatrically two weeks after a New York première at the joint Lincoln Center and Jewish Museum’s 19th Annual New York Jewish Film Festival.

Though shot in chronological order, the interweaving stories (and lives) are presented in parallel, that is, in different locations near one another, but only actually touching for seconds if at all in geography, plot and theme until the last, Fifth Chapter. Two taboo loves cross social boundaries but are shattered by ill fortune and, mainly, by traditional enmities among coextensive neighbor groups and more recent socioeconomic strain and criminality.

It is difficult to divorce anything about today’s Israel from national and regional issues, and Copti and Shani are reported as affirming that “the social problems revealed in the stories are generated and governed by politics.” That said, however, and granting that such tensions anywhere have grounding in affairs of states, Ajami is a tight-schedule, two-camera, two-hour gut vision of the immediacy of life on the edge of poverty, illegality, mistrust, fear and consequent blood. The kidnap-killing of a soldier impinges but is outside the film’s world -- indeed, the perpetrators remain unseen and unknown -- and the only governing body pictured is that of Bedouin elders whose price-haggling would be comic if they were not so powerful.

Motion in time as well as in same-city locales connects this assured début collaboration with Pulp Fiction, for its flashback last section explains previous scenes with a second, clearer perspective and thus joins what had seemed random.

A young Muslim is gunned down as he fixes the car he has got from a neighbor. Bad luck, mistaken identity, for the Bedouin Abul-Zhan motorcycle assassins had been after the previous owner, Omar (Shahir Kabaha), in retaliation for his uncle’s getting one of their criminal clan in a bar shootout.

In a court of elders, influential Babai restaurant-club-bar proprietor and Palestinian Christian Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani) brokers a cash settlement, but Omar cannot possibly raise that amount. Semi-narrator, drawer and part-time visionary Nasri (Fouad Habash) idolizes older brother Omar and fears for him, while their mother wails and gives up hope.

Omar’s long romance with Hadir (Ranin Karim) must be kept from her father Abu Elias, who would not permit her to marry outside their religion and station even while he is fond of Omar as an employee. Among others working for him is teen Malek (Ibrahim Frege), an Occupied Territories Palestinian come illegally to raise money for his mother’s life-or-death surgery. Other employees filter in and out and connect them, sometimes gathering at the pad of Binj (Copti), a Palestinian who parties and does recreational drugs but plans to clear out with his Jewish girlfriend.

On the other side of the religious and official fence is heavy-set Dando (Eran Naim), a Jewish policeman close to burnout and so obsessively looking for his disappeared army brother Yoni that his home life is in disarray and his parents and sister (Moshe and Tamar Yerushalmi and Sigal Harel) distraught.

“In this place of poverty, despair and drugs,” life is cheap, taken in an argument over noisy sheep, or by terrorist-slash-freedom fighters, or in vengeful and mistaken/botched drug deals/stings. Those who die are not bad, and at least here their intentions are good, but in such an environment no one is safe or lucky.

With shifting points of camera-view and of time, place and character, subtitled Ajami is hard to pin down until the end, and not entirely even then. The film is not so much its billed “visceral crime drama” as it is a rendering of the fatal mishaps that dog ordinary people in a deteriorated, already tense milieu. Complex like its nation’s own ethnic and cultural stew, this is bracing cinema even while its implications are distressing in the extreme. 

(Released by Kino International; not rated by MPAA.)

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