There’s a Hebrew saying two acquaintances exchange when unexpectedly running into each other twice within the same day or week: “If we see each other a third time, you buy me ice cream!”
I thought about that yesterday when the American Academy announced Israeli film Ajami as an Oscar contender in the Best Foreign Film category. This is the third year running for Israeli films to be nominated in the foreign movie category and I’m hoping it’s “third time lucky”. Third time ice-cream.
I have to admit, though, that yesterday’s announcement took me by surprise. I didn’t expect Ajami to make the short list. And that’s because – and here goes another admission – I made an ignorant, snap judgment about the movie and wrote it off.
Months ago I attended Israel’s version of the Oscars – the Ophir Awards – and watched, unimpressed, as Ajami knocked out Venice Film Festival winner Lebanon to take top honors. This will never make it to the Oscars, thought I. Not that I had seen any of the Best Film competitors…My opinion was based upon seeing the trailers before and during the ceremony. And I was appalled. Ajami appeared as an amateurish piece of work featuring non-professional actors and dealing with local crime issues. This will never get picked up.
After yesterday’s announcement – and considering the fact that I am on deadline to write a story about it- I sprinted to a midday movie screening to come up to speed.
Hours later, I am still processing what I saw.
The film is good. Really good. It’s complicated and intense and brilliant and it’s a microcosm within a microcosm with numerous parallels, messages and sub-plots – so many that it was a bit mind-boggling. The story takes place mostly in the Ajami Quarter of south Tel Aviv’s mixed Arab-Israeli Jaffa enclave and it deals with issues faced by local residents while simultaneously fanning out as far as the West Bank and southern Israel.
In addressing local issues, it manages to touch on the Arab-Israeli conflict, poverty, organized crime, scandal, co-existence, futility, loss and the simultaneous complex& simple mix that is life in this part of the world. The actors were all non-professional – I nailed that one during my trailer viewing – and this is a first film for Arab and Israeli co-directors/writers/producers Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani.
I won’t give away plots or divulge anything about the characters or story but I will say that I walked away with a few distinct impressions:
1) Like it or not, the Israelis and Arabs living in this region are inextricably linked. For better or worse.
2) That saying “It’s all Good”? It’s not.
3) I got scared for a bit watching the film and contemplating where I live…the deception, thuggery, payoffs, crime, big shark eats small fish messages. Then I remembered: Oh yeah. It’s the same everywhere.
I’ll be pulling up to the t.v. set on March 7th with my bowl of ice cream. I hope third time charm works its magic.