New film examines war, politics, enmity, and the human heart

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

A downed Israeli pilot and a Palestinian boy form an unexpected alliance in “Zaytoun.”

Eran Riklis is an Israeli filmmaker who is ready to tackle issues close to his heart, and in his work he has tried to avoid politics and instead focus in on the human story. His movies, though, often have been politically charged.

In one of his earliest films, “Gmar Gavia” (released here in 1991 as “Cup Final”), Riklis tells the story of an Israeli soldier all set to go to Spain, ticket in hand, to attend the 1982 FIFA World Cup finals. Instead, as Israel invades Lebanon, the soldier finds himself captured by Palestinians. One of his captors shares his love for soccer, and together, 2,000 miles from the stadium, they root for the Italian team.

The filmmaker focuses on the relationships that can be built between enemies, and how common ground might be found. It seems that Riklis uses his craft to go places where others will not, trying to find some link that can convince people with different agendas to come together. In his 2004 film, “The Syrian Bride,” he tells the story of an Israeli Druze woman betrothed to a Syrian Druze man. Because of the demands of the bureaucracy, she can neither leave Israel nor enter Syria. Both sides seem to be at fault. Even with the United Nations representative attempting to broker a resolution, and with the prospective bride and groom standing only 100 yards apart, they are stymied. The couple is blocked from starting a new life together.

In his 2008 “Lemon Tree,” Riklis focuses in on the walls that are built to keep people from being with each other, just as a fence separates the lemon orchard of an Israeli Arab woman from her neighbor, the Israel Minister of Defense. Barriers are being built to protect Israelis from terrorism, but what is lost in the process? The Palestinian woman appeals to Israel’s highest court to seek a resolution.

In his newest film, Eran Riklis revisits 1982, just before Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. The Lebanon war remains a topic that continues to resonate for Israeli filmmakers; in the last few years award-winning films set during that time include Joseph Cedar’s “Beaufort,” Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir,” and Shmuel Maoz’s “Lebanon.”

“Zaytoun” begins with a powerful montage of images set in war-torn Beirut. The language spoken is Arabic, and we are barely able to follow the dialogue as we are thrust into the chaos that was Lebanon of the 1980s. There are boys running through alleyways, dodging bullets and rocket fire, as they try to play ball and carry on some semblance of life. The images are reminiscent of “Slumdog Millionaire”; we see a group of youth crisscrossing the city, and at great peril moving in and out of the notorious Shatila refugee camp. Riklis and his crew do a marvelous job in transforming Haifa neighborhoods so they look and feel like the Lebanese capital. They even have recreated Martyr’s Square in Beirut. You truly feel that you are there, and just as the teens seem to weave their path through the streets, we find ourselves trying to find our way and clarify who the players on screen really are.

Are they PLO? Christian Phalangists? Syrians? Lebanese Army? Everyone seems to be shooting at each other! In the midst of this tumult, planes drop bombs, but whose planes are they?

Enter Israel into this madness.

The next action has a plane being shot down and a bewildered Israeli pilot being knocked around and tossed into a makeshift jail. It is at this moment that the two protagonists, Ari (Steven Dorff), the pilot, and Fahed (Abdallah El Akai), a 13-year-old Palestinian lad who had just lost his father in the air attack, will meet. Riklis has set the stage. There is bedlam in Beirut, almost certain death for the pilot, and a precarious life as an orphan for Fahed. What will happen from here forward will be a unique road movie, as an indifferent Israeli and distraught Palestinian are forced by circumstance to get to know each other, join forces, and journey about 75 miles toward the Israeli border.

What we do come to understand is that Ari, whose only contact with his victims is from great distances above in the sky, is now forced down to earth. He will see the consequences of his work on the ground, and it will be quite an eye-opener. In cinema, we too are far away from the action, but Riklis succeeds in bringing us into the morass, and makes us feel as if we are part of the drama.

In his previous three Middle East movies, the filmmaker has shown how barriers keep people apart. Here, these two enemies are drawn together as they tackle a number of hurdles. Each has a different reason to reach the Israeli border. For Ari, it means freedom, and his reunion with his pregnant wife. For Fahed, it is to fulfill a dream of planting an olive tree on land once owned by his family. Now, what is that all about? Will they both succeed?

Eran Riklis is one of Israel’s finest filmmakers; he and his talented wife, director Dina Zvi-Riklis, are Israeli cinema’s power couple. “Zaytoun” represents this master director’s effort to present a situation where foes can meet, learn to respect each other, and be drawn close, even in war-riddled Lebanon.

It is a fine film, with very good acting, excellent cinematography, wonderful locations, and a stellar performance by El Akai.

It opens today in New York City.

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