Beirut, Lebanon, 1982, at the dawn of the Lebanese Civil War: A young Palestinian boy living at the Shatila refugee camp forges an unlikely bond with an Israeli fighter pilot. It is this unlikely encounter in the film “Zaytoun,” directed by renowned Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis (“The Lemon Tree,” “The Syrian Bride,” “The Human Resources Manager”), that convinced the director he had not, in fact, exhausted his Middle Eastern stories.
“There was something about this simple story of a Palestinian boy who meets an Israeli pilot in kind of extraordinary circumstances,” Riklis mused, speaking from Israel, “which drew me, mainly emotionally, I think, because I felt the potential of having a totally human story set in, kind of, very violent surroundings.
The boy, Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), would rather play ball with his friends or peddle on the streets than go to school. Tragedy strikes when Fahed’s father is killed in an air raid, leaving him an orphan. He clings to a small olive bush his father had nurtured as the only remnant of the family’s abandoned farm in what is now Israel. Although not explicitly stated in the film, its title, “Zaytoun,” is the Arabic word for “olive.”
When an Israeli pilot, Yoni (Stephen Dorff), is shot down over Beirut and captured by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Fahed, who hates all Israelis, helps to guard him. The pilot wants to escape with his life and tries to convince the boy to let him go. Fahed agrees, on condition that he can accompany Yoni to Israel so that he might find the farm and plant the olive bush. Yoni reluctantly accepts the deal and sets out with the boy on the arduous and perilous trek to the border. To ensure the Israeli’s continued cooperation, Fahed keeps the handcuffs on Yoni and swallows the key.
During the journey, the two are in constant danger from the various factions at war in Lebanon. As a result, they have to depend more and more on one another, and, in doing so, become increasingly bonded.
Riklis referred to his film as something of a road movie. “I think when I say road movie, I mean a buddy movie, because all road movies somehow end up being buddy movies, because it’s always two, three, four people on the road, and things are happening. So, I think in that sense it’s war movie meets road movie meets buddy movie meets a little bit of local politics or regional politics.”
Although the director said he wasn’t making a primarily political film, the politics of the region hangs over the action. But Riklis doesn’t favor one side or the other.
“I’m not either trying to portray a sympathetic view toward the Palestinian struggle,” he explained, “or a sympathetic view of the Israeli suffering, or vice versa, because it’s vice versa in the end. Both sides suffer; both sides are guilty; both sides are innocent; and in the end, below the surface of decisions that are taken way beyond the control of what we call the ordinary person, I think there are fragile lives and fragile hearts and fragile emotions, and that’s what I’m looking at.”
He continued, “I think all my films try to observe normal human beings or normal people in extraordinary situations in which extraordinary political decisions or movements, whether local, or regional, or global, affect their lives — and how they react to that.”
In addition, Riklis had a totally integrated cast and crew, including American actor Dorff, as well as Europeans, Israelis and Palestinians.
“A lot of Palestinians are part of my films, whether it’s actors, or technicians, or creative partners as part of my crew,” he remarked. “I think that’s part of the tragedy in the Middle East, between Israelis and Palestinians in particular, because on a personal level, we get along, we come from the same place. Of course, we’re separated by history and blood and issues — the land, and many other things — but we get along. I think once it goes beyond, and it starts to be political, that’s where things go sour and go wrong.”
While the film has received raves from several critics in England, some of the British press found the relationship between a Palestinian boy and an Israeli officer to be more a product of wishful thinking than a real possibility. Asked for his response, the director replied, “I would say, ‘Get a life.’
“I think people who write that don’t have a clue about what’s going on in the Middle East, for better or for worse,” Riklis said. “Behind every headline and behind every report people see on television, there’s just life. There are millions of people who have families, who have children, who have hopes, disappointments, who have good days and bad days, and who have extraordinary encounters. And I think everything’s possible, everything’s open.”
Riklis concluded by describing “Zaytoun” as a story “that has its sweet moments, but also has a very sad, basic situation, which is not resolved in this film. I never come with solutions, because I don’t have them, but I do try to kind of highlight the situations and offer human insight into them.”
“Zaytoun” opens Sept. 27.