The opener for the 15th Seattle Jewish Film Festival is Ajami, a gangster film set in the streets of Jaffa, Israel. The background: An act of violence in a cafe explodes into a conflagration that consumes working-class Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Everyone knows how it started, but no one knows how to stop it. Eventually, life becomes no longer a matter of joy or pain, good or bad, right or wrong—everything comes down to just death. In this way, Ajami recalls Across 110th Street, a 1972 film that's unremittingly violent and does not spare anyone—blacks, Italians, cops, rich, poor—from the pressures, the realities, of inner-city life. But despite Ajami's bleak picture of Jaffa, it manages to show the greatness of what is lost by the greatness of what could have been.
In Ajami, the directors—one is Jewish Israeli (Yaron Shani) and the other is Palestinian Christian (Scandar Copti)—make every effort to capture the physical beauty of all the people fatally caught in their fast-paced narrative. The prosperous owner of the cafe, his young daughter, her lover, the lover's brother, and the police officer who becomes entangled in the net of the drama—all are essentially beautiful people with lives that seem to have enormous potential. All of this potential, however, is destroyed by random and deliberate acts of violence. In Across 110th Street, there are no beautiful people; the inner city has made everyone ugly and cold, and so their destruction is necessary to make a way, a clearing for a brighter tomorrow—the end of the film has nothing but this as its message. With Ajami, the brightness is already there; it's present in the life and eyes of the ordinary people. What a bright future needs, then, is not the destruction of lives but the creation of a system, a society that can make this beauty flourish. Ajami is an important and impressive film. SIFF Cinema, Sat March 13 at 8 pm.