In Eran Riklis’ Zaytoun, scheduled to be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, Sept. 9, the allure of human relations trumps the passion of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The film, set on the eve of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, is about the unlikely friendship between Yoni, a downed Israeli pilot, and Fahed, a 12-year-old Arab boy whose family lives in a Palestinian refugee camp but yearns to return to its ancestral village in what is now Israel.
This remarkable relationship is the figment of screenwriter Nader Rizq’s fertile imagination. As implausible as it may be in the real world, it seems reasonably plausible in Riklis’s fine-tuned, poignant film, which takes place in Beirut, the Lebanese countryside and Israel.
Zaytoun opens as an unidentified Israeli pilot in a fighter jet approaches his target and as a young Palestinian far below hawks gum and cigarettes on a crowded street. The pilot, as we will see, is Yoni. The boy is Fahed.
Brash and high spirited, Fahed (Abedallah El Akel) lives with his father and grandfather in a squalid camp inhabited by Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
Their Lebanese neighbours do not like them. Throughout the film, in a reflection of their animosity, the Lebanese refer to the Palestinians in their midst with undisguised disdain, calling them “dogs” and “shitty Palestinians.”
Fahed could not care less what his Lebanese neighbours think of him and his fellow Palestinians, saving his venom for Israel and Israelis. At a martial arts camp run by Palestinian militants, where he learns to jump over barriers and assemble submachine guns, he dreams of liberating Palestine, throwing Jews into the sea and returning to his family’s home.
When Yoni is shot down near his camp, Fahed gets the chance to meet a living, breathing representative of the enemy. Yoni (Stephen Dorff), disheveled and a hood covering his face, is shackled and kept in an enclosure.
At first, Fahed exhibits hostility toward Yoni, refusing to give him water or return a photograph of his sweetheart. Yoni, gruff and self-confident, ridicules the notion that Fahed and the Palestinians can ever go back to their long, lost homeland.
Despite their irreconcilable differences, they reach a mutually beneficial understanding that enables Yoni to escape and Fahed to catch a glimpse of his family’s ancestral village.
A greedy Lebanese taxi driver, having extracted the promise of a huge fare from Yoni, drives the pair toward the Israeli border. As they glide down a coastal road, the beat from the Bee Gees’ hit song, Stayin’ Alive, fills the screen with irresistible intensity.
Fahed has prepared himself for this special journey. He wears a pendant in the shape of a map of Palestine. In his pocket is a key that can supposedly unlock the door of his grandfather’s old house in Israel. And in the back seat, in a pot, is a small olive tree that he intends to plant in his grandfather’s village.
As they travel southward, Yoni and Fahed warm to each other and help each other out in life-and-death situations, discovering their respective humanity as political dogmas fall away. Thanks to Yoni, Fahed realizes his dream of setting foot in “Palestine” and planting the olive tree in a now ruined village. The tree-planting scene is politically charged, underscoring the recurring Palestinian theme of “the return.” Nonetheless, Zaytoun, which unfolds in Arabic, English and Hebrew, is not really and truly a political film.
Although Riklis is clearly sympathetic to Palestinian grievances, a point that emerged in one of his last movies, Lemon Tree, he seems more interested in the mechanics and joys of people-to-people relations.
The lead actors acquit themselves with professional aplomb.
Dorff, an American, carries himself with understated strength and dignity, and surprisingly, his Hebrew accent is flawless. El Akel, a newcomer to the screen, is quite impressive as well, mixing anger and rage with tenderness and empathy.
Zaytoun appears to have been shot in Israel. What seems like Israeli Arab neighbourhoods, towns and pastoral rural areas fill in realistically for Beirut and a whole host of Lebanese locales.