What’s playing this week

What’s playing this week

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The Island’s summer banquet of interesting, not-to-be-missed films continues this week. In the MV Hebrew Center’s Summer Institute Film Series on Sunday, July 18, is “Ajami,” a gripping, dark, crime story set in a mixed Israeli neighborhood.

At the Tabernacle on Tuesday, July 20, is just-released “Racing Dreams,” an intimate documentary portrait of three young go-kart racers presented by the MV Film Society. On Wednesday, July 21, at the Chilmark Community Center, the MV Film Festival’s screening of “Waiting for Superman,” Davis Guggenheim’s anatomy of public education in America, which includes a panel discussion with distinguished local and state experts. Cinema Circus continues its children’s program that precedes the later film.

Seven years in the making, Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee “Ajami” (2009) derives its name from a rough Jaffa neighborhood near Tel Aviv. Directors Scandar Copti, a Palestinian Israeli, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, combine their opposite cultural perspectives to offer a penetrating look at how the mostly male members of this mixed community interact.

The narrative is constructed like a mosaic, with the focus shifting from one set of characters to another in each separate chapter, and not necessarily in chronological order. As a result, it is easy to get lost, unless the viewer pays close attention to which characters are spotlighted. Most of the actors are untrained and drawn from the neighborhood, with co-director Copti the exception, playing an important role as a Palestinian.

The action starts with a retaliatory killing in which the wrong family member is killed. In an effort to end the vendetta, Omar appeals to his grandfather for help, and a council meeting determines the amount of the fine that should be paid: 37,000 dinars. The only way Omar can come up with the money is by selling drugs.

Meanwhile, Omar, a Muslim, wants to marry Hadir, the daughter of Abu-Lias, a Christian restaurant owner and de facto mayor of the neighborhood. Omar enlists Malek, a young Palestinian working illegally in Abu-Lias’s restaurant, whose mother will die without expensive surgery, in the drug deal.

Dando Ben David shows up in other sections of the narrative. He is an Israeli cop, as brutal in his professional life as he is gentle with his family. His brother, an Israeli soldier, has gone missing.

“Ajami” is not a film where the pieces fit together neatly at the end. It is truly a mosaic of life in a mixed Israeli neighborhood, bleak but brimming with vitality and insight.

If “Ajami” is raw and hellish, Marshall Curry’s new documentary, “Racing Dreams,” carries its own unpleasant undertones. It tracks the aspirations of three middle-America racecar wannabes: 11-year-old Annabeth Barnes, and 13-year-old Brandon Warren, both from North Carolina, and 12-year-old Josh Hobson from Michigan.

Director Curry has picked his subjects well. Each reveals a different dimension of the go-kart racing world, where a single race costs its entrant $5,000. Pretty and precociously ambitious, Annabeth dreams of becoming the first woman to win the Daytona 500. She works hard to compete in a male-dominated world but feels some ambivalence about the commitment to racing.

Brandon, whose druggie mother is long gone and whose father is fresh out of prison, lives with his grandparents. Talented and mercurial, he is disqualified for rough driving in one race that he wins.

In contrast to Annabeth’s girlish charm and Brandon’s reckless streak, Josh is quiet, methodical, and determined, The parents — in Brandon’s case grandparents — stand solidly behind these young racers, with racing careers of their own in the past and ambitions that equal their kids’.

Little by little, the go-kart racing world with its wished-for stock-car racing future unfolds. By far the most interesting element of “Racing Dreams” is its gradual disclosure of Annabeth’s, Brandon’s, and Josh’s lives and personalities.

Here is a culture where speed is worshipped at the altar of the automobile. The film’s focus on the three children’s lives and racing dreams, instead of the details of the sport, feels right. In the same way little girls parade through beauty pageants, Annabeth, Brandon, and Josh behave like caricatures of an adult world, grown up before their time and obsessed by questionable goals.

“Waiting for Superman” was not available for review. But this documentary describes what happens to a group of bright children as they make their way through a public school system that puts up barriers to academic achievement.

In conjunction with “Waiting for Superman,” a panel of education experts will lead the audience in a discussion of the film and public education. Among the panelists will be Massachusetts secretary of education Paul Reville and author Paul Karasik of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. Before “Waiting for Superman,” Cinema Circus will present “Looking Around,” a series of animated films for children.

“Ajami,” Sunday, July 18, 7:30 pm, MV Hebrew Center, Vineyard Haven. $15.

“Racing Dreams,” Tuesday, July 20, 8 pm, Tabernacle, Oak Bluffs. $8; $5 for MV Film Society members. Doors open at 7:30 pm.

“Waiting for Superman,” Wednesday, July 21, 8 pm, Chilmark Community Center. $14; $7 for MV Film Festival members at ticketsmv.com or at door.

Cinema Circus: “Looking Around,” animated films for children, Wednesday, July 21, 5 pm, Chilmark Community Center. $10; $5 for MV Film Festival members.