Zaytoun


Stephen Dorff can't understand why he isn't a star and neither can Abdallah El Akal.

Stephen Dorff can’t understand why he isn’t a star and neither can Abdallah El Akal.

(2012) Drama (Strand) Stephen Dorff, Abdallah El Akal, Ali Suliman, Alice Taglioni, Loai Nofi, Tarik Kopty, Ashraf Barhom, Mira Awad, Joni Arbib, Ashraf Farah, Adham Abu Aqel, Nidal Badarneh, Hezi Gangina, Morad Hassan, Michel Khoury, Osamah Khoury, Doraid Liddawi. Directed by Eran Riklis

The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israeli is one of the world’s great tragedies. From the west, our perspective is that if only cooler heads could prevail on both sides perhaps they could live together in peace. Closer in however the perspective changes and things get a lot more complicated.

In 1982, Lebanon is in civil war and the Israelis are making noises about invading. Palestinian refugee camps house cells of the PLO who from time to time lob rockets into nearby Israel. Young Fahad (El Akal) lives in one such camp in Beirut but despite having a fairly laid back father and grandfather, he skips school regularly to sell gum and cigarettes on the streets of Beirut. The Lebanese themselves are not overly fond of the Palestinians who bring nothing but trouble. They chase Fahad and his friends and sometimes shoot at them. Fahad however s 12 years old and invincible. As for the camp, well, they’re more concerned that Fahad get his training by the PLO. Their homeland isn’t going to reclaim itself, after all.

That all changes with sudden ferocity when Fahad’s father is killed by a falling bomb. Fahad’s feelings for the Israelis moves from disdain and disrespect to downright hatred. Shortly afterwards, Yoni (Dorff), an Israeli fighter pilot, is shot down and captured by the PLO. Fahad is given the job of guarding the prisoner whose return to Israel might well bring about the exchange of many of their brothers-in-arms.

Fahad, still seething with hatred and sorrow, torments the prisoner and makes his feelings known to Yoni. When Yoni grabs one of Fahad’s friends to get some leverage to escape, he finds that he can’t harm the child even to secure his freedom. After he lets him go, Fahad shoots him in the leg.

While Yoni is recovering in the local clinic, an incident occurs that gives Fahad second thoughts about his current situation. He approaches Yoni who’s offered to take Fahad to Israel with him if he helps him escape. Yoni seizes the opportunity and agrees. The two steal out into the night.

At first they are antagonistic towards each other (Fahad swallows the key to Yoni’s shackles in order to make sure he can’t run off) but as time goes by, they are forced to rely on each other and they reach an understanding. For starters, Fahad lugs around with him a small bag, a soccer ball (he idolizes the Brazilian star Zico) and an olive tree which he means to plant at the family’s home in Palestine. Yoni thinks he’s nuts at first but slowly grows to realize what the olive tree means. For Fahad, his aha moment is that Yoni is not such a bad man and if one Israeli can be decent, perhaps they are not all as bad as his PLO trainers have made them out to be.

This is essentially a combination of a road film and a buddy film set in the Middle East. Naturally the politics of the region play a heavy role in the plot. Riklis, who previously directed Lemon Tree and  The Syrian Bride, both fine films as this one is as well. In many ways, this is a much more mainstream Hollywood-like film than the other two. Riklis seems to have a real empathy for the Palestinian cause; while he doesn’t come out and say in any of his films that he is in support of their determination to create a country for themselves, all three of these films are seen not from the Israeli viewpoint but from the Palestinian and in all three cases the Israelis are seen as bureaucratic and somewhat insensitive to say the least.

Dorff has been quietly putting together some really quality performances lately (see Brake) and in a just world would be well on his way to the A list. Unfortunately this isn’t a just world and so his work goes mainly unnoticed in small indie films. This is one of his stronger performances and one can only hope that someone is noticing.

El Akal has been in 12 movies in six years and at 15 years old looks to have a pretty strong career ahead of him. While I was a bit frustrated by his performance here – in some scenes he shows tremendous emotional range while in others he is as wooden as the tree he carries around with him – the moments when he is on his game he literally carries the movie. If he can be a little more consistent with his performance there’s no telling what he can achieve.

The movie is divided in three parts; the opening act which focuses on Fahad and his life in (and near) the camp; the second is his and Yoni’s dangerous trek through Lebanon to get across the border – with the help of a Bee Gees-loving taxi driver who provides some needed comedy relief – and the third Yoni and Fahad in Israel and their quest to get Fahad to a home whose location he only vaguely knows. They are all three different in tone; the first harsh and sometimes shocking (a woman is executed for infidelity while Yoni and Fahad negotiate with the cab driver to get them to the border), the second more of a thriller as the two are hunted by the Lebanese military but also by the Palestinian guerrillas. The last act is a bit more warm-hearted and sweet-natured. The three mesh surprisingly well together but that third act is a bit of a letdown after the tension of the second.

I liked the movie about equally with Riklis’ other works. I can’t say that it gives any more insight into the conflict than what we already know – that the two peoples, other than their religious differences, are essentially much more alike than they’d probably care to admit. At the very least they both share a love for a harsh and often unforgiving land which has a beauty all its own.

REASONS TO GO: Dorff delivers another strong performance. Some good suspense and drama.

REASONS TO STAY: El Akal is inconsistent. Some actions taken by the characters aren’t explained well.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s violence and children in harm’s way; there’s smoking (some of it by children), some foul language and some adult themes and situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Zaytoun” is Arabic for “olive” and refers to the olive tree Fahad carries around with him throughout the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Defiant Ones

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Aftermath

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Lemon Tree (Etz Limon)


Lemon Tree

Tarik Kopty finds himself with a strange urge for lemonade.

(IFC) Hiam Abbass, Ali Suliman, Danny Leshman, Rona Lipaz-Michael, Tarik Kopty, Amnon Wolf, Doran Tavory, Amos Lavie, Smadar Yaaron, Hili Yalon. Directed by Eran Riklis

Simple things can turn into complicated issues without much urging. We have a wonderful talent as a species of turning a molehill into an insurmountable mountain.

Salma (Abbass) is a Palestinian widow living on the edge of the West Bank eking out a living from a lemon grove that has been in her family for generations. With only the elderly Abu Hussein (Kopty) to assist her – her son has fled to America to find opportunity as a dishwasher – she cares for her lemon trees with meticulousness born of generations of love for the trees she has been given custodianship for. She is able to sell her lemons at market and maintain her household in that fashion.

That is, until the somewhat smarmy Israeli defense minister (Tavory) moves in to the large house bordering the other side of her grove, on the Israeli side of the border. His security detail sees the grove as a threat – why, terrorists could hide among the trees and launch an attack on the home of the minister. Salma is ordered to cut down her grove, for which she will be properly compensated by the Israeli government.

To Salma, this would be the equivalent of a mother being asked to smother her babies. It’s not merely a source of income to her – the grove is a connection with her family’s past. She balks at the order and puts in for an appeal with the Israeli military. In order to help her navigate the tricky waters of the Israeli appeal process, she needs a lawyer. She specifically wants a Palestinian lawyer since she doesn’t trust the Israeli lawyers but none of them will take the job. None of them, that is, besides Ziad Daud (Suliman), a young lawyer trying to establish himself.

The case becomes a cause célèbre in the Israeli news media, and the minister finds increasingly that he is becoming an unsympathetic figure. Even his own wife (Lipaz-Michael) doesn’t support his cause. He is becoming increasingly less comfortable with the attention and is eager for the case to come to a conclusion.

To make matters worse, the grove has been barricaded by the military pending the outcome of the trial and is overseen by armed soldiers, with Salma being banned from tending to her trees which are slowly beginning to die, lending urgency to the situation. To make matters worse, Salma and Ziad are beginning to feel a strong attraction for one another, which is bringing further frowns to the faces of the Palestinian village elders.

This is loosely based on an actual incident. Director Riklis, who also helmed The Syrian Bride (reviewed elsewhere on this blog), is a solid storyteller who wastes no motions. This is his strongest work to date, and it’s clear that Abbass, who also starred in The Syrian Bride, has an excellent rapport with the director.

She is at the moral and physical center of the film, in nearly every scene and she handles herself with serenity and calm, but with just a hint of fiery sensuality that makes her scenes with Suliman provocative. Salma is a very strong and determined woman, well aware of her expected role as a widow in her community but she is also a woman, and a beautiful one at that. This is the kind of performance that gets overlooked by the American film community but is nonetheless worth seeing.

This is neither pro or anti Palestinian. It doesn’t take sides in the conflict other than to acknowledge that the people getting hurt are the innocents caught in the middle who are merely trying to live out their lives in peace, as Salma is. It takes some shots at the traditional roles of woman in the region, and for that alone its worth watching.

WHY RENT THIS: A modern David-and-Goliath fable that is an allegory about Israeli-Palestinian issues even as it explores the role of women in both cultures. Outstanding work by Abbass as Salma.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the supporting roles might have been fleshed out a bit more.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some implied sexuality and sexual tension, and a little bit of foul language but generally acceptable viewing for general audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hiam Abbass won the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar for her work in this movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations