Mean Streets — ‘Ajami’ a multi-character study of a Tel Aviv community

“Be a man. Don’t be a coward.”

These are lines that echo through Scandar Copti and Yaron Shandi’s assured debut feature “Ajami,” which takes a look at the underbelly of the title Israeli town, a religiously mixed community of Muslims, Jews and Christians. Bravado, anger, ego and unworkable ideas of honor conspire against a mix of characters.

It’s a change to see such a film set in Tel Aviv not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yes, prejudice abounds, and not one but two couples suffer because of their inter-religious nature, but for Ajami itself, it’s more an uneasy melting pot.

There are five stories and five “chapters” in “Ajami” and the movie plays with temporality, returning three times to a drug deal gone bad to reveal more about the players involved, which shows the influence of ’90s cinema.

It begins with a drive-by shooting, an innocent mistaken for a member of a family whose son has killed in self-defense. The older brother Omar (Shahir Kabaha) refuses to go into hiding, and a deal is worked out through a judge. Restitution is owed, but where to get the money?

There’s a Jewish cop, Dando, who is doing his best to find his younger brother, who has disappeared from the Army. There is Binj, a funny hipster played by co-director Copti, who loves a Jewish girl, and winds up holding a bag of coke after his brother skips town. There are several other characters, and they pop up in each story, leading to some surprising revelations later in the film.

Comparisons to Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” are apt in the influence of gangs on the small community, but if anything, “Ajami” really shows the influence of the HBO series “The Wire,” which took an evenhanded look at several strata of society, from cops to drug lords to school teachers and press. Copti and Shandi’s scope is not as broad, but the sense that society has doomed the entire group of characters to an inextricable fate is a similar. Ajami isn’t Baltimore, but both roil with potential violence. (And both works feature a major character named Omar.)

Copti and Shandi handle these multiple strands with ease, and there’s plenty of great scenes here. When Binj takes a call at a disco and forces him to leave his Jewish girlfriend, the directors place a series of men in the background, their ears perked up despite the loud dance music — you can see they know he’s not one of them. The character of Abu-Lias is also fascinating, a Christian restaurant and bar owner who employs Muslims illegally. He helps them out, but also acts as a sort of loan shark. He’s not entirely good or bad — he’s a businessman. And his last act dooms the wrong character in order to help somebody else.

There are a lot of dead bodies in “Ajami” but this is not a Mafia-style tale. It’s its own piece, and rightly deserved its Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign film. The film never preaches to us. Instead it includes in the conversation and tells us that there are no easy answers.

AJAMI
***1/2
Starring: Shahir Kabaha, Ibrahim Frege, and Fouad Habash
Length: 120 minutes
No rating
Playing at: Plaza de Oro

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