Based on actual events, Eran Riklis‘ Lemon Tree (no connection to Sandy Tolan’s novel The Lemon Tree), which opens today in the Los Angeles area, chronicles a Palestinian widow’s fight to prevent the Israeli army from razing her lemon grove. The problem is that all those lemon trees are located right next door to the brand new house — actually, "fortress" would be a better description — of the Israeli minister of defense. Security agents have deemed the grove a potential hide-out for terrorists, who could then fire rockets right onto the minister’s dining table.
Sounds like a political film? Well, sure. Lemon Tree is definitely political. (The real-life case was that of defense minister Shaul Mofaz and his neighbor.) But while politics is actually nothing more than human drama on a large scale — considering the vast number of people affected by political decisions (or indecisions) — Lemon Tree, written by Riklis and Suha Arraf, is a "political film" on a small scale. Its chief focus is on the ramifications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the very personal lives of a handful of individuals on different sides of that divide. The rainbow of human drama is all there: love, hatred, injustice, prejudice, loneliness, perseverance, the will to live, and the eponymous wall that separates us all.
The chief players are Hiam Abbass (recently seen in The Visitor) as the widow, Israeli stage star Doron Tavory as the defense minister, Rona Lipaz-Michael as the minister’s neglected wife, and Ali Suliman (one of the two terrorist wannabes in Paradise Now) as the widow’s attorney. If there’s any justice, the Lemon Tree ensemble will be up for all sorts of critics’ awards (if, for a change, U.S. critics’ groups decide to look beyond Hollywood fare), while Israeli Film Academy winner Abbass — whose achingly dignified performance is nothing short of brilliant — will be bagging more best actress trophies all over the place.
A few days ago, filmmaker Riklis (above right), among whose credits are The Syrian Bride (also starring Abbass, and co-written by Arraf) and Temptation, answered a few questions over the phone about Lemon Tree. See below.
Lemon Tree opens today at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills and Town Center 5 in Encino.
Photos: IFC Films
Lemon Tree is based on factual events. Could you elaborate a little on that, please. Also, why on earth would they have Israel’s defense minister living — literally — a stone’s throw (or a grenade’s throw) from Palestinian territory?
Actually, all the drama that I needed for a fictional story took place in reality. The film was based on the story of a Palestinian woman who went to court to fight her neighbor, who happened to be Israel’s defense minister at the time.
Of course, I made the story a little bit more extreme, in that you see him actually moving in at the beginning of the film. In other words, it’s not like the conflict takes place after he’s been living there for a few years. In reality, somehow security needs appear out of the blue. And there’s always a sense of urgency about them.
The judicial decision that you see in the film is based on fact. The process itself is fictional, but I did stick to the original Israeli supreme court decision. Since their decision was so cinematic, I just went along with it.
As for the defense minister living so close to Palestinian territory, you have to understand the Israeli psychology behind it: "It’s our country. We can live wherever we want." There are a lot of security personnel who live near the Palestinian border. A few years ago, the defense minister did live in one of these areas.
In Lemon Tree Salma is portrayed as an outcast: a lonely widow who can’t rely on the support of her children, and whose rights as an individual are abused by both the Israeli state and her fellow Palestinians.
The defense minister’s wife, Mira, is also a sort of outcast: living mostly alone (not counting the security guards) in a place that looks and feels more like a fortress than a home, at odds with her husband, left alone by her daughter. Was that parallel between the two women found in the screenplay from the get-go, or did that come about during the writing process?
That decision was made early on, while [co-screenwriter] Suha Arraf and I were having our discussions about the story. Salma’s is the classic case of the individual against the system. We have all the elements there. It’s also about loneliness and about solitude. In fact, that’s what the film is really about. That concept was there from the very beginning.
It all came together quite clearly. I don’t think it would have worked if on the other side of the fence we had put the defense minister himself, for what took place on the Israeli side was supposed to have mirrored Salma’s life. Why not, then, make the minister’s wife be a mirror to Salma and have Salma be a mirror to her? From the beginning, we were looking for that "mirror" situation. Each of these two women lives in her own world.
In previous interviews, you’ve talked about Lemon Tree as a sort of “allegory.” Well, the defense minister is called “Israel Navon." Coincidence or a symbol of the Israeli government’s intransigence toward the Palestinians? Should the two women — who never get to actually talk to one another — be perceived as “symbols” as well, or merely as two individual women? Both?
My natural inclination is to say that I don’t work with allegories or symbols. However, that’s basically the way that type of story is going to be understood. There’ll be a lot of symbols in it — even though I tend to shy away from symbolism and allegories as much as possible. In the end, I leave that up to the audience, to make up their own minds regarding where the film is going and what it represents.
Now, although the characters represent more than themselves, at the same time they’re actually very specific. They are not supposed to represent every Palestinian or Israeli, so that any audience member in the world can identify with them. People can relate their own surroundings, families, personalities to those of the people they see on screen. You don’t have to be an Israeli or a Palestinian or a defense minister’s wife to understand their situation.
So, I guess it’s a mixture, in a way. But I prefer to treat these people as people, not symbols, because this film is about individuals and how their lives are affected by political situations and political decisions. What really interests me the most is to try to focus on the ways the lives of individuals are affected by decisions made by local governments, or globally, or in the capital of your country. Those decisions could have a dramatic effect on your life.