quick plug for Ajami, the israeli/palestinian film that was nominated for an oscar last year. it takes place in the eponymous section of jaffa, where christians and muslims live uneasily together. the tension, though, is not so much between christians and muslims as between crime gangs whose ruthless illegality intersects with the equally ruthless israeli occupation. even though jaffa is an israeli city, the occupation permeates the movie — through the presence of the wall (which is handily penetrated by cross-border drug and weapon smuggling), through illegal border crossings of migrant workers, through legal border crossings of israelis who need to get into west bank, and through the general violence perpetrated by israeli security forces against arabs (muslim or not).

in the meantime, we also get a sense of the way in which arab justice structure and community support systems continue to operate in what would otherwise be a waste land of violence and lawlessness. elders of both christian and the muslim faiths get together and figure things out, brokering precarious truces and stopping seemingly unstoppable carnages.

it’s a bleak film, but it’ll keep you riveted. there are four entwined stories, all involving young men, almost kids. most of these kids are pushed to violence out of necessity, because there is literally no other way to be and nowhere else to go. the only story involving an israeli jew is a well-crafted set up — you think the guy is much more evil than he in fact is. but it makes sense: paranoia permeates this film because it permeates its characters’ lives. the aforementioned jew is, in fact, as paranoid as the arab characters are. no one is winning.

first time director/writer/actor scandar copti is an israeli palestinian and his co-director/writer yarom shani is an israeli jew, which, if you ask me, is impressive all unto itself. the cast is mostly made out of non-professionals, including one of the protagonists (older brother of opening-scene kid). the training sessions you can view in the extras are really interesting. it seems to me that casting local non-actors for this project is tantamount to intersecting art with community activism (in a way, say, that is not dissimilar from what is done in The Class). the (male) actors explicitly talk about the training sessions as a way to work through their anger; an older female actor in a head scarf shows a tremendous amount of empowerment. i am not suggesting that she was disempowered before, but she says that she was accosted by a neighbor about the casting call, and it must be nice to go from pots, pans, and gunfights to the stages of cannes and hollywood.

don’t know if this is better of worse than co-nominee The Prophet, but it definitely gives it a run for its money. me, i give it the edge.

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