Looking At The State Of Israel

Looking At The State Of Israel

Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Momentum Pictures

Release date: February 14th 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 125 minutes

Language: Arabic/Hebrew with English subtitles

Year of production: 2009

Director: Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani

Cast: Fouad Habash, Nisrine Rihan, Elias Saba, Youssef Sahwani, Abu George Shibli, Ibrahim Frege, Scandar Copti, Shahir Kabaha, Hilal Kabob, Ranin Karim, Eran Naim, Sigal Harel

Official Movie Site

I don’t hesitate to describe Ajami as art of the highest order. It is faultless filmmaking. I have rarely watched a movie that makes me think: this is what cinema is for.

A harrowing portrait of a suburban district on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, Ajami is (quite astonishingly) a debut production by writer and director Scandar Copti. It tells the story of a disparate milieu of Jews, Arabs and Christians living in a poor suburb near Tel Aviv, whose lives converge in misfortune and criminality.

It is tragedy in the literal sense. Over five intricately arranged acts, the narrative darts back and forth across time and perspective, following one character into another’s world, and culminating in a frenzy of death and devastation which doesn’t so much weave the various storylines together as smash them in a particle collider. This is a film to shake you out of the stupor which a lifetime of news stories about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis has induced. The ending should knock you off your feet.


Nominated in 2009 for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it was in good company with the likes of The White Ribbon and The Secret in their Eyes, which won for reasons I suggest in my review. But Ajami took home nearly everything at the Ophir Awards, Israeli’s movie academy; and given its theme, I think the filmmakers will consider that ample recognition.

In Copti’s vision, the stricken region is a diseased wound spreading the contagions of hatred and suffering to its divided population. But not only this. In just about the cleverest move that I’ve ever seen a film make, the region itself is the tragic hero, afflicted with a “fatal flaw” which sets in motion the unstoppable logic of tragedy to a calamitous dénouement.

Yes, it’s an easy observation that the plot of this film is an allegory for the regional “troubles”, to use the Irish euphemism. But I want to say that Ajami somehow doesn’t need to allegorise because the features of the story represent the geopolitical status quo just perfectly and without contrivance. So perfectly, in fact, that “represent” is just too weak a word for what Ajami does to render the world.


This isn’t a local story conceived to correspond with and thereby illuminate a larger and less visible political reality. The local reality is struck through with the larger reality, and that larger reality is completely constituted by local realities. What happens when a Muslim stabs a Jew on the street isn’t just the human reality: it’s the political reality. Ajami doesn’t represent one with the other; it is both.

This is an outstanding and commendable achievement. But more than “just” aesthetically or intellectually impressive, it is I think the reason Ajami is so intensely moving- arguably its most important artistic effect given the ambitions of the film. It has to get to its audience through their feelings because thought on the subject has demonstrably failed.


Great art universalises the particular, and particularises the universal, with neither privileged as an origin. Ajami does that, and so unostentatiously, so consistently sensitive to the latent callousness of art in the face of real suffering, that you almost don’t notice it. But there it is, and the purpose is unmistakable.

Ajami sees it like this. Between the Israelis and Palestinians, every problem that arises is just a conspiracy of misunderstandings, accelerating towards the worst conceivable conclusion with tragic inevitability. With such mutual suspicion and hostility, each misunderstanding is interpreted with blackening cynicism, and the worst possible crimes are attributed by one to the other. Revenge is revenged and so on potentially forever. In the atmosphere produced by blood as bad as this, even chance can appear to be poisoned. Divine amelioration is sought for lives of such agonising uncertainty and vulnerability: blessings, prayers and invocations to God are on everyone’s lips. May you live to 120. May you know only happiness. God willing. God bless you.


But rather than bear helpless witness to an ancestral curse, this story is an offering of real hope. It serves to show there is nothing inherent in the character of Israelis or Palestinians, and nothing inherent in their cultural differences (which are in any case trivialised by the importance of what is shared), that is the cause of so much suffering and misery. We don’t hate each other: we only hate what we falsely believe each other to be.

Matters are complicated further by a third party. There is another character to consider in Ajami: the wealthy Christian restaurateur, a benevolent patriarch and social arbiter, firm but fair and generous, and so very nearly everything that he should be. Finally though his interests steal in at the most intimate aperture of life- the family- to corrupt all good intention and inadvertently sabotage the possibility of a better future. Enough said.


Quite remarkably, the cast were all non-professional. Their performances are impeccable, tender, distressing and disturbing by superbly deft turns. The cinematography is in documentary style, all handheld cameras and human perspectives, which augments the immediacy and realism.

The film begins and ends with a lesson in dying:

“Close your eyes, take a deep breath and let your head relax. You feel calm and relaxed. Your hands are becoming weightless, then your feet, and then your whole body. On the count of three you’ll open your eyes and find yourself in a different place. One, two, three…”


“… Open your eyes.” Tragedy has always been about rebirth. This rebirth becomes an injunction to see not only the horrors around us, but to see through the confusions and prejudices they provoke. Ajami helps us to do just that.

Let's talk... » Add your comment!

  1. Dominic,
    A thrilling review ( one of the best and one of the most interesting , I read, until today).
    I know Ajami ( I do a guided tour of the neighborhood : History,Architecture and Cinema )..the people I meet there are just AWESOME,kind and ” fighters for social justice”..Love to show you one time the neighborhood: we will meet Omar ( Shahir Kahaba ), who still works every afternoon in the family bakery. Also the story of the neighborhood,founded in the begining of the 19th. century, is sometimes heart-breaking and shows the enormous mistakes made by the different Tel-Aviv/Jaffa municipalities against the Arab inhabitants of ” Ajami”..
    Frits de Wit
    New Israeli Cinema

  2. Dear Frits,

    I’m delighted that you approve of my review, and multiply so given that you are involved in Ajami. I was surprised and moved to learn that “Omar” works there in the family bakery: surprised because he is evidently a tremendously talented actor; and moved because it brings home not merely the realism but the reality of the film. I’m also hugely grateful for the invitation. If I’m ever in Israel I will certainly take you up on it.

    In my review I suggest that _Ajami_ follows the conventions of tragedy: in fact it conforms to almost all of the conditions laid out by Aristotle in the _Poetics_. You mention the “mistakes” of the municipalities. You might be interested in this quote, which I found after the review was published. I think it is equal to the intentions of _Ajami_.

    “The change to bad fortune which he [the tragic hero] undergoes is not due to any moral defect or flaw, but a mistake of some kind.”

    It’s crucial to the structure and effect of tragedy to observe that the “hamartia” or “fatal flaw” of the hero is incidental. If Othello is just evil we cannot pity him. To consider the flaw a mistake amounts to a kind of forgiveness; and only with recognition and forgiveness can the tragedy end.

    It might be pat to draw a straightforward analogy from this literary form to real world geopolitical problems. But the earliest surviving tragedy, _The Oresteia_, is a story of revenge and revenge revenged over generations. It is brought to an end by Athena, who assembles a court to finally settle all disputes; and the idea of Justice is born. So the tragic form is bound up with the conflict and how to resolve it.

    In the light of this, the formal choices that _Ajami_ makes are ingenious.

    Thanks again- and could you recommend any more Israeli cinema, particularly of a kind similar to _Ajami_ i.e. politically inflected or social realist?



Leave Your Reply

Required fields are marked *. Your details will never be shared.