The Israeli film, “Lemon Tree,” is a striking story about relations between individual Israelis and Palestinians and illustrates one of the anomalies of our perception of the Middle East conflict.
If, as a foreigner, you want to understand the attitudes of an ordinary Palestinian, or absorb some levelheaded dissent from Israeli government policy, your best bet is to read Israeli newspapers or watch an Israeli movie.
That is a tribute to Israel and to its journalists and filmmakers. Can you imagine Hollywood creating, or mighty America accepting, a film that portrays the Viet Cong as sympathetic human beings during the Vietnam War, or Taliban fighters with understandable resentments in Afghanistan today?
The Journal talked about these differences with director/co-writer Eran Riklis of “Lemon Tree,” but first something about the film itself, which was inspired by an actual incident some eight years ago.
At the opening of the film, Salma Zidane, a 45-year-old widow from a small West Bank village abutting Israel’s Green Line, is bottling some spicy lemonade in her kitchen.
The ingredients come from a small lemon grove, which she inherited from her father and which she tends lovingly with the help of an elderly handyman.
The rural rhythm is disturbed when the newly named Israeli defense minister, Israel Navon, decides to build a large, handsome house directly facing the lemon grove.
His security detail warns that the abundant lemon trees would provide perfect cover for terrorists aiming to assassinate Navon and orders that all the trees be uprooted.
Although both Arabs and Israelis counsel the widow that it’s hopeless to fight the edict, she appeals first to the Palestinian Authority, which doesn’t want to be bothered, and then to an Israeli military court, which quickly rules against her.
Despite the warnings of everyone, including her young Arab lawyer, Salma insists on taking her case to the Israeli High Court (Supreme Court).
The case now becomes a national and international media story, to the exasperation of Navon, who chides reporters at a press conference for bugging him about lemons when he has to worry about the country’s survival.
In parallel, the film gently develops the story of the loneliness of two middle-aged women and the silent bond of sympathy that develops between them.
One is Salma, who attracts and is attracted to her much younger Arab lawyer, to the dismay of her relatives. The other is Mira, Navon’s wife, who grows increasingly estranged from her husband, both for his roving eye and his callousness toward the lemon grove widow.
The hearing before a Supreme Court panel is an emotional highlight and without giving away the verdict, each side wins a bit and loses a bit.
Despite the underlying seriousness of the film, Riklis lightens it with flashes of humor. Best is an Israeli, named Private Quickie (for his slowness), who whiles away long hours in a guard tower studying audio self-improvement courses and embodies every army’s Good Soldier Schweik.
Outstanding in a fine cast is Hiam Abbass, a native of Nazareth, who portrays the widow with great dignity and an undertone of sadness. She was featured earlier in Riklis’ “The Syrian Bride.”
When Riklis phoned from New York, he was asked about the apparent gap between Israeli filmmakers, who tend to sympathize with the Palestinian viewpoint, and the Israeli electorate, which now seems to favor a more hard-line policy with the ascent of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
“I don’t think Israelis are becoming more prejudiced,” Riklis responded. Rather, “people are becoming tired, they are fed up with what is happening. They want to live normal lives.”
After dealing with Jewish-Arab relations on the human level in “Lemon Tree,” “The Syrian Bride” and “Cup Final,” Riklis believes he’s about done with the subject.
But, he cautions, if a really good story comes along, he might change his mind. “Never say never,” he said.
“Lemon Tree” is just opening in the United States and Canada, but has received warm receptions in Europe, Asia and South America.
“The situation we deal with in the movie isn’t unique to Israel,” Riklis said. “With local variations, it could happen along parts of the United States-Mexican border.”
“Lemon Tree” opens May 1 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino.