Understanding the Misunderstandings of Ajami at the Washington Jewish Film Festival

Last night was one of those nights that remind me of how much I love the Washington Jewish Film Festival. The sold-out screening of the Israeli submission for the foreign language Academy Award, Ajami was the kind of event that kept our lobby full long after the lights came-up.

I am not going to lie: some people hated the film. To them the overlapping story-lines were unclear, the themes overly-grim, the 120 minute runtime unjustified and the ending un-redemptive.

Others were just as equally energized and blown-away by the film and lauded its unbelievably skillful use of non-professional actors, cleverly constructed plot that rewards the careful viewer and the emotional power of the tragedies of misunderstanding that form the core of the film’s themes.

I fall into the latter rather than the former group, but I have sympathy for both takes on the film. What Ajami succeeds best at doing is in portraying the very separate and yet inextricably connected lives that Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and Israeli Jews lead in this one neighborhood in Jaffa.

As for the Rashomon-style storytelling, it ingeniously forces you to reconsider your perception of events based on the biases you bring with you to the theater. I can’t go into too much detail without depriving future viewers of the visceral satisfaction that comes from seeing characters we think we know act in surprising ways — or in ways that we expect but are then forced to reconsider. Additionally, this film accomplished what few films can, which is to say it’s ending genuinely shocked me and left me breathless.

But after a deep inhalation I had the great pleasure of talking with many people outside the theater as we re-pieced the film together, shared details some noticed but others had missed, listened to the negative reviews and countered with our own apologias for a film that had genuinely moved us. It is what great film-going is about (if it can’t always be about universally acknowledged great films).

If you were at the screening on Saturday night at the Washington DCJCC or have seen Ajami elsewhere in our Festival or other Festival screenings around the country or in Israel, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Am I giving the filmmakers too much credit? Was their subtlety too subtle to the point of obfuscation? Or was it, as I believe, an eloquent if challenging picture of  a community where small conflicts and misunderstandings too often have tragic consequences?

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