Earlier this month, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated the Israeli film Ajami as a contender for this year’s foreign language Oscar — putting Israel in the running for a third consecutive year.
Last year’s 1982 Lebanon war film, Waltz with Bashir, was predicted to take the Oscar for its original animation treatment. The year before, Beaufort — also centered on the 1982 Lebanon war — was a nominee.
But when I attended Israel’s version of the Oscars in September and watched as Ajami took top honors, I was certain the film would never make the Oscar grade. Too local. Too amateurish. Venice Film Festival winner Lebanon — yet another take on that war — seemed a more likely winning entry. But my knee-jerk opinion was based solely upon watching trailers, so on the heels of this month’s announcement I headed to a Tel Aviv theater to form a more educated opinion.
A day later I’m still processing the film, its implications, and the Pulp Fiction-style movie within a movie that so accurately portrays the intricacies and tenuous nature of life in this part of the world.
Arab and Israeli co-writers/producers/directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani are newbies to the game. This is their first film, and they used amateurs — I nailed that one in my initial viewing — to portray life in south Tel Aviv’s mixed Arab-Israeli Ajami quarter.
In addressing local issues like organized crime, poverty, and drug trafficking, Ajami manages to include the Arab-Israeli conflict, coexistence, futility, and loss — a simultaneously complex and simple blend.
Ajami is bleak, and I’m assuming it won’t do well in the U.S. because of that. It is two hours of tension with no resolution, no happy ending, no hope. This is life on its own terms; in the darkened cinema I caught myself whispering “Oh my God” aloud several times. Afterward, there was no doubt in my mind that the plots, characters, and sub-plots were based on real-life experiences.
In depicting the interdependency shared between Israelis and Arabs, the film touched on an important point noted by Variety film reviewer Jay Weissberg in Cannes last May:
Rarely has the tinderbox nature of the Middle East been so accurately lensed, on such an intimate scale. … The one region Ajami can never play is the Middle East, since the Arab world’s cultural boycott of all things Israeli means that the most intelligent critiques of the occupation remain largely unseen by a target audience starved of multidimensional fare.
An unfortunate point because the film portrays West Bank Palestinians working in Israel, IDF soldiers serving in the West Bank, Jaffa Arabs living beside Israelis, Israelis living in Jaffa next door to Arabs, Israeli crack police units, Arab clan leaders, and the innocents caught in between.
It doesn’t take sides, but instead serves as an apolitical canvas for a highly political subliminal message: Build walls, blow up buses, fire rockets, go into Gaza — the ongoing tit-for-tat of mistrust we share in common isn’t going away. And we’re culturally and geographically linked with “the cousins” in complex ways. The film’s bleak, unresolved theme drives that message home. I wish for peace with my neighbors. But I don’t think it will happen.