Having established himself as a compassionate chronicler of Israeli-Palestinian relations in his previous films, such as The Human Resources Manager and The Syrian Bride, director Eran Riklis was looking to move beyond the Middle East with his next project. Still, as he told an audience this week following the U.S. premiere of Zaytoun at AFI Fest in Los Angeles, he returned to his roots after quite literally seeing the seeds for something special in the Zaytoun script—from first-time Palestinian writer Nader Rizq.
“Trees that have been rooted in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years or maybe even more, it does tell the whole story,” says Riklis. The director used a dispute involving a Palestinian widow and the Israeli defense minister over the West Bank citrus grove that grew between them as a powerful metaphor for the entire region in the drama Lemon Tree. “Of course, when they’re uprooted, it also tells a story.”
In Zaytoun, that tree has yet to be planted: After a young Palestinian child named Fahed (14-year-old Abdallah El Akal) watches his father die in the PLO-controlled Beirut of 1982, the boy makes it his mission to carry out his father’s wish that the olive tree take root in the soil “when we’re back on our land.”
Like so many other children living in the war-torn region of Lebanon, Fahed is indoctrinated into a PLO military camp. He trains to scale walls and put a gun together blindfolded, but is confronted with a crisis of conscience when he helps find and capture an Israeli fighter pilot named Yoni (Stephen Dorff).
The pilot subsequently offers the boy a chance to return to his father’s ancestral village in Israel if the boy helps him escape. Though their relationship begins with Fahed shooting Yoni in the thigh, the two learn that they have more in common than what divides them.
After the screening, Riklis noted that he sees the film as “an attempt to combine something that was something specific and something that relates to a specific place and yet relates to anybody anywhere at any time, fortunately or unfortunately.” He cited the broader implications of the film, that peace is a process that may only be achieved one friendship at a time.
The director insisted he “does not make political films,” but when asked if he thought a film such as Zaytoun could help bring reconciliation to the region, Riklis was circumspect but optimistic:
“Yes and no,” he says. “Films do what they do, which is make people think, rethink, feel, perhaps walk out and reconsider everything they’ve thought up to the moment they walk up to the cinema. I hope that’s what the film does.
“At the end of the day, you count them by the ones. If it reaches one person, then another person, then hopefully….” Riklis paused, and continued. “Even though I have to say, as in one of my previous films, Lemon Tree, the minister of defense of Israel said for 3,000 years, we’ve tried to solve it, and he can’t. That’s a kind of brutal truth in a certain way, but I think there’s always hope.”
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Based in Los Angeles, California, Stephen Saito writes about the movies. His work has appeared in Premiere, the L.A. Times and IFC.com. He recently founded the indie film site The Moveable Fest. Email Stephen | @mfrushmore