Like J.G. Ballard, but without the weird sexual car stuff.

There are two points I want to make in this review of a new and fast-paced film from Israel, Ajami. Both points involve the violence in this film. From one point, we can seethat the violence is about the destruction of a society that is unable to resolve its racial, religious, and historical complexities. From another point, a Ballardian point (more about this in a moment), violence represents a kind of birth by fire, a painful and bloody transition from an old (national/ethnic/religious consciousness) to a new (post-national/ethnic/religious) consciousness. Because the first form of violence is less abstract, let's begin with it.

Sponsored
The Music Always Matters
No matter what, KEXP is here to help with music and community. Join us at 90.3 FM and KEXP.ORG.

The movie opens with a murder. It happens on a sunny day in a district of Jaffa. A young man, an Arab, is working on his car; two men (also Arabs) on a motorbike slowly approach him. The passenger on the motorbike pulls out a pistol, aims it at the back of the young man who is happily repairing the car, and fires three rounds. The victim collapses, life oozes out of his fatal wounds, the women (mothers) start screaming in pain and grief. Another young man is dead on the streets of Jaffa.

We soon learn that the men on the motorbike are members of a bedouin gang that's hell-bent on revenging some hazy, confused shooting that happened in a cafe. We also learn that the assassins killed the wrong young man—the person the bedouin gang wants dead lives across the street. The mistake does nothing but drag a completely innocent family into an expanding black hole of violence. And the more lives the black hole consumes, the larger it grows. Some of the victims who enter its vortex are directly connected with the incident that happened at the cafe, the point of origin; others have nothing to do with it. The violence doesn't care who is or who is not involved; it just wants death.

From this point, we can see that Ajami is about the uncontrollability of violence. No matter how good your reasons are, or how much planning you have done, an act of violence always takes on a life of its own. "Beef starts with the shove and ends with the shovel," rapped East Flatbush Project on "Tried by 12." Violence only leads to more violence. This is its hard logic. It's not something that can be contained in one act, that can end where it begins—no, its nature is to expand to such an extent that its very origin (a push) is forgotten. Is this not the message at the heart of Aeschylus's Oresteia? Even the ancient Greeks knew that violence must be removed from the hands of individuals and relocated to the impersonal institutions of law and order.

To capture the raw unpredictability of violence, the photography in Ajami is shaky, unstable, nervous. Even in scenes that seem romantic (young lovers in a bar) or peaceful (a boy washing his grandfather in a tub), the nervous condition does not cease. We always feel that anything can happen, that violence can explode in the bar or in the bathroom. Ajami starts with a shove and ends with way too many shovels.

The other point of the violence in Ajami is related to the type of violence in J. G. Ballard's novel Crash (1973), which was made into a movie by David Cronenberg in 1996. In both the novel and the movie, the violence of an automobile crash is presented as a part of a process that's transforming human subjectivity. When a car shelling one human body crashes into a car that shells another human body—each body being crushed by the dashboard and punctured by pieces of shattered glass—what is actually happening is the crude transformation of both the car and the human into something that both are not: a man-machine. Something like this is at work in Ajami. The destructive violence (consuming Jews, Muslims, Christians) is also creative. And what will be the result of this creative process? A new subjectivity that exists beyond the present ethnic and religious limits.

It's here that we can clearly see why the film was directed by an Israeli Jew (Yaron Shani) and an Israeli Palestinian (Scandar Copti). What both directors want to see is an individual—a new man/woman—who is not yet born. So the two minds join forces to create, in the world as it is, a space, a clearing for a world as it ought to be. Ajami ends with what Linton Kwesi Johnson called "destruction all around"—a night of corpses. All that one can hope for is that tomorrow will be a brighter day. recommended