Going into any year’s respective Oscar season, one area of Academy Awards is often unknown to the general public: the foreign film category.
With most of the film’s not getting the chance to screen outside of places like New York or LA, many of the films that are nominated for the Best Foreign Film award seem to come out of nowhere, particularly knowing the process behind getting nominated (each country can submit only one film for consideration).
Well, with nominated films like A Prophet and The White Ribbon both hitting DVD earlier this year, and the award winner The Secret In Their Eyes still making its way throughout theaters stateside, Israel’s submission and subsequent nominated film, Ajami, has finally been released on DVD.
And I have to say, it was well worth the wait.
Ajami, named after an area of Jaffa where Jews, Christians, Palestinians and Arabs attempt to live together, follows Omar, an Arab, who tries to help his family stay alive as a group of gang members attempt to take revenge for a past transgression. He meets a stunning young Christian girl, Hadir, but due to social constraints, their relationship proves to be a tough one. We also meet Malek, a Palestinian worker who must gather enough money to help his mother get an operation. Finally, we meet Dando, an Israeli cop, who tries to find his missing brother, who may, or may not, have been murdered by a group of Palestinians.
Best described as a mixture of films like Gomorrah, the split storyline narrative structure of Amores Perros, and the crime filled narrative of City Of God, the film launches the viewer into the culturally electric world that is Israel, and never truly lets the viewer go.
Written and directed by the duo of Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, and Scandar Copti, a Palestinian, the film is very much in the vein of the aforementioned trio of fantastic films, but also, it is very much its own beast. The best and strongest aspect of the film is what it does beyond the canvas painted by Shani and Copti. At its core, the film is essentially the cinematic manifestation of the current state of the Israeli state. The film is vibrant, full of an inherent electricity, equally violent, and yet raw as anything I’ve seen in a very long time. However, it also shows that the average person is defined by who, and in many cases, what, he or she is.
That said, Ajami is also a more than compelling, and often viscerally moving, crime thriller.
From the film’s very outset, a moment in which we see an innocent young boy get gunned down in a drive by shooting, the film thrusts its viewer into a world that is the very epitome of what it means to be intense. Full of wars over given areas, drug deals and acts of violence, the Oscar nominated film starts off with a very specific, and seemingly random act of violence, but then takes the viewer back in time to show that, just like the events leading up to the age that this young generation of Israeli’s live in, this one moment is rooted in a story much deeper in the respective timeline. Once the viewer gets context, we see that what or who a person is holds the most weight in this cultural powder keg.
Starring a cast of non-professional actors, the film has all the potential in the world to truly fail, but instead, the directors seemed to have found themselves the very best actors that could have filled these respective roles. The true star here is Shahir Kabaha, who plays Omar, the film’s closest thing to a lead. He is far more gifted a thespian than one would imagine, particularly knowing that this is his very first, and only, acting role. He and other performers like Ibrahim Frege, Ranin Karim and Scandar Copti (Malek, Hadir and Binj respectively) give a film with inherent emotional and narrative weight, all the more power and emotional depth. Each moment of this film is drenched in emotionally enthralling power, giving the film as a whole a certain sense of depth unlike anything I’ve seen in a very long time.
That said, the film is far more than just a vehicle to make a political statement. The film has this inherently compelling ability to completely and utterly entrance the viewer in a raw and visceral world that equals is real life inspiration. Ajami is a stunningly gorgeous film, in the most realistic and intense way possible, using a gritty, handheld style of filmmaking found in films from the likes of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, we are privy to sights of acts of violence in such a black and white nature, that is in stark contrast to a film that is as thematically grey as Ajami truly is. Throw in a deep thematic and emotional core, and you have the makings of a film that truly rivals any and every competitor that it faced this past Oscar season. It may not hold the same stylistic flourishes as something like A Prophet, nor the Bergman-esque thematic and stylistic elements of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, but it more than holds its own against its stiff competition.
As far as a DVD release, Ajami, released by Kino, is a rather deep one, especially compared to bare bones releases like the aforementioned White Ribbon. The film comes with a collection of deleted scenes, which is always nice to see, as there is little to nothing more interesting than seeing what the filmmakers decided to leave out, as well as a theatrical trailer, and a gallery of still photos. Also, the film comes with a massively interesting documentary, Ajami: The Story Of The Actors, which for fans of the film, is an absolute must watch. It’s a breathtaking look at the making of the film, that while it may have a few lacking moments (particularly acting coach Hisham Suleiman proclaiming that the film will end up “living for 200 years”), it is a welcome addition to this great release from Kino, that looks into the time leading up to the film’s inevitable production.
Overall, the film is a tad bit over long, but it’s hard to notice, as Ajami is a film so kinetic and full of life, making it a cinematic manifestation of the area it draws its name from. Emotionally powerful, thematically compelling, and an overall haunting crime film, make sure you do not miss this one. It’s one of the best film’s you’ll see all year.