Eran Riklis, one of Israel’s most successful filmmakers, was less than enthusiastic when he was offered a job to direct a feature film set in the Middle East.
Fred Ritzenberg, an American producer, wanted him to do Zaytoun, which premièred at the Toronto International Film Festival and was runner-up for the BlackBerry People’s Choice Award.
Zaytoun, which unfolds on the eve of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, focuses on an extremely unlikely friendship between a downed Israeli pilot and a boy whose ancestors once lived in Palestine.
“I was exhausted by the Middle East,” said Riklis, who dealt with the region in three previous films, Cup Final (1992), The Syrian Bride (2004) and Lemon Tree (2008). “And besides, I was really busy,” he added. “I was about to direct The Human Resources Manager.”
As well, Riklis felt that the script, written by Palestinian American Nader Rizq, was too dogmatic in its current form.
Ritzenberg, however, wanted to recruit Riklis, having completely fallen in love with his movies.
In Cup Final, PLO fighters in Lebanon capture an Israeli reservist, discovering they all share a passion for soccer. In The Syrian Bride, a Druze wedding on the Golan Heights collides with the Arab-Israeli conflict. And in Lemon Tree, a Palestinian widow in the West Bank who tries to stop Israel’s defence minister from uprooting her lemon trees forms a relationship with his wife.
What appealed to Ritzenberg in this trilogy of films was Riklis’ ability to be empathetic and sensitive to both Israelis and Arabs. “I felt that his approach to telling Middle Eastern stories would bring an authenticity to Zaytoun, and would also be fair and balanced.”
As Ritzenberg talked about his vision of the film, Riklis’ interest mounted. “It was getting exciting,” Riklis recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s move forward.’”
Once Riklis was fully aboard, he reworked Rizq’s script. “It was beyond one-sided,” he said in an interview during the festival.
Over a nine-month period, Riklis revised the script eight times, infusing the characters with life and bringing a sense of equilibrium to the situation in which they found themselves.
Riklis claims that Rizq was satisfied with the changes he made. “He’s an engineer, not a professional writer, and he understood that script writing is a process.”
Originally, Riklis hoped an Israeli actor would play the part of Yoni, the pilot who ejects from his fighter jet over a Palestinian refugee camp near Beirut.
Some of the actors who were approached were simply not interested in playing an Israeli, Riklis disclosed.
In the end, they chose American actor Stephen Dorff, who is known for roles in popular movies such as Blade and Public Enemies.
“We needed an international name actor who could pass for an Israeli. After two hours of talking to Dorff, I knew he was Yoni,” Riklis said. “He was very eager to do it.”
Dorff, who is half-Jewish, arrived in Israel several months before the shoot to study with a Hebrew dialect coach.
He also visited Israeli Air Force bases and met a pilot who had been shot down in 1982 and endured two years of captivity in a Syrian prison.
“I’m extremely happy with his performance,” said Riklis. “He’s a serious actor with serious ambitions.”
Fahed, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy who helps Yoni escape to Israel, was portrayed by the Israeli Arab actor Abdallah El Akal, who had small roles in 20 films before coming to Riklis’ attention.
“He comes from a big family near Tel Aviv’s old central bus station,” said Riklis. “He’s intelligent and clever, but had to be trained to fit into his role.”
Produced on a budget of about $7.5 million – peanuts by Hollywood standards – Zaytoun was filmed in Haifa, Ramla, the Galilee and a number of Israeli Arab towns rather than in Lebanon.
“It was a tough eight-week shoot,” said Riklis, 58, who was born in Jerusalem and raised in Montreal and New York City before returning to Israel with his family. “We moved around a lot. It was really a road movie.”
Riklis – a supporter of a two-state solution to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute – hopes that Zaytoun will give viewers a better understanding of Israelis and Palestinians.
He rules out the possibility that Zaytoun will be screened in the Arab world. The Syrian Bride was shown at the Marrakesh Film Festival in Morocco, but otherwise, only pirated DVDs of his films have made it to Arab cities.
Currently, Riklis is preparing to direct his next film, Dancing Arabs, which deals with the dual identity of Israeli Arabs. He also plans to direct a thriller in Europe.
To the best of his knowledge, Zaytoun should reach theatres in Canada and the United States in 2013.