Given the number of foreign films I see for review (and otherwise), I knew the day would come when the cultural barrier would be too difficult for me to get through. Of all the major cultures in the world, I think the one I understand the least about is Arabic. I’m not completely ignorant, but I’m pretty close. I was able to get through A Separation (and really enjoy it), but that was a fairly self-contained character drama. Obviously culture was a part of it, but the scope of the film was small enough that I could pick up the knowledge necessary to follow the plot. Ajami isn’t like that. It appears entirely impenetrable to those without any kind of familiarity with Arabic traditions and customs. Maybe if I lived in Israel (where the film takes place) or some other part of the Middle East, I would understand what the film was trying to say.
Then again, maybe I wouldn’t.
Ajami (عجمي | עג’מי)
Directors: Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani
Release Date: August 7, 2012 (VOD)
Ajami is named after the neighborhood in which it takes place. Ajami is part of Jaffa, an old port city in Israel. Bad things happen in Ajami, both in its real and fictional incarnations. In the film’s version, the city is a primarily Arab place with a few Jewish people sprinkled in. Since this is Israel (or Palestine, as some of them would prefer), there is a lot of tension between characters. But it’s not just that the Jews and Arabs are mad at each other, there’s also plenty of in-fighting. Fortunately, the version I watched noted the language the subtitle was translating, because that was really the only way I knew who was involved in the arguments. I probably would have been able to figure it out eventually, but I was already plenty confused, and didn’t need another thing to keep track of.
The film is broken up into five chapters, each one focused on some aspect of Ajami life, but the way it’s broken up is confusing and irritating. Although the timeline of the first two chapters seems to be pretty straightforward, it completely falls apart once the third chapter begins. I think it’s a fairly logical assumption that a new chapter in a story, unless explicitly stated otherwise, will take place after the previous one. It may revolve around different characters or may be 10 years later or whatever, but there’s every reason to expect that Chapter 3 takes place after the end of Chapter 2. That’s not the case here, and it’s never acknowledged. I spent the entirety of Chapter 3 unaware that the time had jumped backwards, because it focused on different characters and I completely misunderstood what their problem was in the first place, and then when Chapter 4 started I really lost it. It wasn’t until halfway through Chapter 4, when they showed an earlier event from a different perspective, that I was sure I hadn’t hallucinated some major earlier events.
Every time that the action shifts from one place to another, subtitles are happy to explain that and where it has shifted. But not once is there a “three hours earlier” or some such clue about what’s going on. Now, with the knowledge that each chapter was skipping around I am still confused about when everything took place. There are obviously twists that come from the multiple perspectives that can take place thanks to time (e.g. “Oh, so that’s how he died!”), but the confusion mitigated the power of those realizations, even though some of them were pretty cool.
I appreciate a film that has no problem killing off important characters. Many films will put their characters in terrible positions and they come out okay. That can be fine, and generally you want the characters to come out okay, because what was the point of spending so much time with them if they’re just going to die anyway (that was a big part of my distaste for Rise of the Planet of the Apes)? But it lowers the stakes. If you see a character go through hell and survive, that’s awesome, but you’re going to expect him to survive the next encounter. If he dies, then that could also be effective, but when death happens immediately, at the first sign of trouble, then everyone can die. Every encounter has that tension, because nobody is safe.
Although the confusing timelines makes it difficult to judge the exact bodycount, Ajami has its fair share of death, especially with regards to the major characters. Not all of the main people die, but a lot of them do. You realize that possibility almost immediately (the first scene ends with a drive-by shooting of an innocent teenage boy), and it makes every moment seem much more sinister. You never know if or when things will work out (and they do on occasion). That is a strange feeling, and although I didn’t have a lot of connection with the characters, I was interested in watching their lives unfold.
Here’s where I’m conflicted. I don’t know how much of my overall confusion has stemmed from legitimately confusing filmmaking techniques and how much is from me not understanding basic things about the film and its culture. For example, it turns out a lot of the characters are Christian. I didn’t know that until the movie was almost over. Clearly that was a major sticking point between some of the characters, but I completely missed it. Maybe if I lived in the Middle East, that would have been instantly apparent to me. As it was, I was shocked.
As a reviewer, I can only give my experience, which is what made writing my review of The King of Pigs so difficult. I knew that I was getting a subpar experience. But I knew it. Here I only think it. I believe that I would have gotten more out of Ajami if I understood what the whole judge thing in the first chapter was about or what exactly working illegally means in Israel. I could write a list of things that I don’t understand, and I could look them up now, but that wouldn’t change anything. As I saw the movie, it was confusing and didn’t give me enough clues to figure things out. But if the film isn’t made for ignorant me, can I fault it for that? If a film is made for a specific subset of people, there is nothing wrong with that.
But then I can’t recommend it to the majority of the Flixist audience, who are probably like me. Chances are you don’t know much more about the people of Israel and Palestine and the specifics of the city of Jaffa than I do. If you do, then you should see this movie, and then tell me if I’m just dumb. I’d honestly like to know. But there are enough things wrong with the film’s presentation and narrative that perhaps it’s not cultural differences that hurt my experience.
So what do I think of this movie? Well… I think it’s good. Despite all of my problems, I liked what it did and what it tried to do. With some more context, perhaps I would have thought it was great. The Academy thought it was one of the five best foreign films of 2009, so presumably there’s something there. But the Academy sucks, so what do they know?
Should you see Ajami? Sure. It’s a unique film, which makes it potentially worthwhile in and of itself. But then again, it’s also reminiscent of City of God, which is among my personal favorites and is a far superior film. So maybe you should watch City of God instead, either for the first time or again. It’s also a look into a strange culture, although one that’s certainly less strange. Still, there’s something good in Ajami, though it probably won’t blow you away.
Then again, maybe it will.