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Originally published Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 3:00 PM

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Movie review

'Ajami': Israeli Oscar nominee targets prejudice and folly in the 'hood

"Ajami," an Oscar-nominated Israeli production set in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, suggests a Middle Eastern version of "Boyz N The Hood." Not all the relationships are clearly established, but it has a powerful overall quality.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'Ajami,' with Shahir Kabaha, Fouad Habash. Written and directed by Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti. 120 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains violence). In Arabic and Hebrew, with English subtitles. Several theaters.

For the third year in a row, an Israeli film has been nominated for an Academy Award as the year's best foreign-language film. Although none of the three ended up taking the big prize, few countries establish this kind of track record.

The anti-war drama "Beaufort" came first, followed by the innovative animated feature "Waltz with Bashir." And now the Israeli/Palestinian coproduction "Ajami," which opened the recent Seattle Jewish Film Festival, is back for a regular run.

The creation of a Palestinian director (Scandar Copti) and a Jewish filmmaker (Yaron Shani), "Ajami" may be the most daring of the group. It suggests a Middle Eastern version of "Boyz N The Hood," handled with startling skill by two first-time directors and a nonprofessional cast.

The credits begin with what sounds like a child calling for help, though the scream quickly turns into something much lighter. The mixture of terror and playfulness continues through the opening moments, as the young narrator, Nasri (Fouad Habash), sets the scene for a shockingly casual drive-by shooting.

"I felt something bad would happen," he declares, "but I didn't know what."

The murder seems to take place in slow motion, in the heat of a day that otherwise couldn't be more ordinary. The image of this "good boy" who was "killed for nothing" while fixing a tire sticks with you.

The dead boy is Nasri's cousin, shot only because the killer thought he was someone else. The botched assassination sets off a fresh wave of crises in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa. Nasri's brother becomes a drug dealer, an Israeli policeman finds himself obsessed when a relative disappears, while a Palestinian refugee works overtime to pay for his mother's bone-marrow transplant.

These subplots, plus a couple of Romeo-and-Juliet affairs, including one between a Muslim and a Christian, are less involving than Nasri's story, and they're sometimes confusing, even when (or maybe even especially when) the subtitles identify which language is being spoken.

The nuances are not always communicated, though the attempt to use language to clarify ethnic and political positions is laudable. Equally ambitious is the shifting time scheme, which pays off in unexpected ways.

Evenhanded in its handling of Arab/Jewish tensions, "Ajami" owes a large debt to its cinematographer, Boaz Yehnonatan Yacov, who brings a strong sense of place to the story that turns out to be essential. The result is a compelling drama about prejudice and folly.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

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