The setting is an Israeli border community that straddles Tel Aviv and Jaffa, where interweaving flashbacks and flash-forwards of violence, revenge and corruption directly impact the lives of four different characters. There's 19-year-old Omar (Shahir Kabaha), who has been targeted for assassination by Arabs with a grudge against his uncle and struggles to hide his love for the Christian daughter of his benefactor. Working for the same man is Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a teenage Palestinian refugee desperately trying to raise enough cash to get his mother treated for leukemia. Meanwhile, beefy Dando (Eran Naim), is a thuggish Jewish cop bulldozing his way through Jaffa in search of his missing soldier brother. And finally there's Binj (played by Copti), a middle-class Palestinian who wants to move to Tel Aviv with his Jewish girlfriend but gets swallowed by the endless spiral of crime, identity conflict and senseless brutality.
Divided into five chapters, the film's chronological game of leapfrog hides a fraying narrative that relies on happenstance and contrivance — a la Paul Haggis' Crash — but is thankfully devoid of that film's sentimentality and reality-straining coincidences. Instead, there's a gritty sense of Greek tragedy that snakes its way through Ajami, building tension through intimacy and shifts in point of view. Even as the vignettes double back or build on one another, information is skillfully doled out. And while there aren't any profound surprises or insights, Shani and Copti offer a sympathetic view of characters living on both sides of the Arab-Jewish dividing line. The film is political in the best sense, because the filmmakers have no ax to grind. There are no villains or heroes here, only a web of allies, enemies, and the families caught in the crossfire. Violence, Ajami reveals, spreads like a virus, infecting all cultures.
It's a brave and generous approach Copti and Shani have taken, portraying a community ravaged by never-ending tragedy as both perpetrator and victim. And their amateur cast gives the film the raw nerve of authenticity and urgency. While it stood no chance against The White Ribbon, A Prophet and Argentinian winner The Secret in Their Eyes, this Israeli crime-drama may ultimately prove to be the most relevant of the Oscar nominees.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, July 2-3.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.