Everything Changes

From Film to Film: Lemon Tree and Zaytoun

  • Lemon Tree

    Lemon Tree
    (Etz Limon, 2008)

    Seldom or never is there anything theorizing or speculative in Israeli director Eran Riklis’ films from the tormented Middle East. For example here, with restrained anger and great wisdom, he tells of the absurdities of Israel’s security notions. Based on realities – including the many litigations between the occupying power and Palestinian landowners – he depicts the fate of a small lemon grove, similar to the thousands of Palestinian olive groves, already cut down.

    The so called Intifada Act hovers in the background, a section of the law which allows Israeli security and military, generally speaking, to proceed as it likes with Palestinian property. But that said, Eran Riklis rarely uses a legal and moralizing pointer. Instead he gives the entire issue a profound human contour.

    Here we have the proud widow Salma Zidane, played by the extraordinary Palestinian actress Hiam Abass, who could also be seen in Riklis’ border drama The Syrian Bride which deals with the grotesque confusion around the Golan Heights. It’s been a long time since Salma Zidane’s three children have left home: as we know the Palestinian diaspora is huge. She remains, together with her aging faithful old helper Abu Hassan (Tarik Kopty), both of them stubbornly tied to the family inheritance, the lemon grove on the brink between Israel and the West Bank.

    Everything changes when the Israeli minister of defence builds a flashy new house right by the grove. It must go, says security, but with the help of lawyer Ziad (Ali Suliman) Salma fights for her lemon trees taking her case all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court.

    Of this story Riklis could have made a kind of morally renovating and unambiguous external courtroom drama. Instead Riklis develops it into an interplay between Salma and the Defence Minister’s young wife Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael) in particular. This is epitomized in one image in which Riklis captures the unbridgeable distance between the two. Entrenched behind her design curtains, growingly alienated by her husband’s hardline indifference, Mira’s eyes meet Selma’s gaze.

    The drama is not only about the existence or not of a lemon grove. Equally important are the shared family breakdowns, love and loneliness. Another key scene captures the amount of self-restraint demanded of Selma, not to give up her hopeless legal fight and defend herself by other means.

    Above all: Lemon Tree is about different roads to restored humanity and self-respect where Eran Riklis draws a distinct line between women’s and men’s different relationship to the cannibalistic consequences of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – on both sides. Frequently you ask yourself if the solution of this seemingly never- ending conflict and its bloody reality is at all served by fiction. If it looks like Lemon Tree I’m prepared to answer yes.

    Zaytoun (2012)
    Zaytoun (2012)

    Fahed is soon to be a teenager. His home and life is with his father and grandfather in the Palestinian refugee camp Shatila in the southern part of Bayreuth. The year is 1982 and in Bayreuth there’s a raging civil war. The Palestinians are unwanted and despised by most parties in the seemingly insoluble and irreconcilable conflict at that time.

    The walls of his school are perforated by bullets. Fahed prefers the military training with Hezbollah or maybe the PLO, it remains unclear, and playing soccer, being one of Israeli director Eran Riklis favorite metaphors for what could be liberation from the pains of war. Risking his own life, Fahed gets outside Shatila in the number 10 shirt of Brazilian soccer star Zico to sell chewing gum on the streets of Bayreuth, rather than learn English in school. His notebook is filled with the names of Palestinian martyrs replacing the words. He helps his father in nursing a sprouting olive tree at the same time, cherishing the dream to return and plant it in the old village across the border, in Israel.

    The opening of Zaytoun is exuberant and vivid, exempt from miserabilism. Eran Riklis follows Fahed and his contemporaries running around the city with a football at their feet, where every crossed street means a danger to life as they become targeted by the Phalangist militia snipers. The realistic tone changes as Fahed’s father dies and a plane crashes under one of Israel’s many bomb attacks.

    The fighter pilot is taken prisoner by the Palestinians and the young boys are to guard their enemy. The result: Fahed, with the olive tree in his backpack and the fighter pilot Yoni set out together on an adventurous trip southward to Israel, across mine fields and road blocks, with an incessant and humorous banter between the street-wise kid and his blunt adversary.

    The script for Zaytoun was written by Palestinian Nader Rizq and has waited a long time to be realized. It comes as no surprise that Eran Riklis finally was the one to tackle it. His earlier films include The Syrian Bride about the sad conflict around the Golan Heights and Lemon Tree about a Palestinian widow’s struggle for her only livelihood on the occupied West Bank.

    Like these earlier films, Zaytoun recounts the difficulties and possibilities of reconcilement between Palestine and Israel, about a joint past and the belief that only direct human contact can solve this eternal conflict which over and over again endangers world peace and, not least, claims Palestinian victims. The tone of a fairy tale is stronger here, but although filled by good will – also somewhat shallow and romanticized in parts. But yet not. In it’s combination of road-movie and coming-of-age-drama, in its way of viewing the slowly growing friendship and interaction of the odd couple, this fairy tale claims its place among the films to respect and note about this terrible conflict.

    Zaytoun means olive in Arabic. When the two of them pass by the ancient olive groves in Israel, planted long before the creation of Israel, the story is given an extra painful dimension. Abdallah El Akal plays the part of Fayed brilliantly. Stephen Dorff as the Israeli fighter pilot has bigger sentimental problems to grapple with.

    We know already that Israel, only a short time after Fahed’s and Yonis’s trip has come to an end, will invade Lebanon, turning a blind eye to the massacre of up to 3500 civilian Palestinians in the refugee camps Sabra and Shatila. Then this fairy tale about atonement is entirely in its place.

    Eva af Geijerstam, Sweden