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.
Along those lines, the men in charge in Lemon Tree don't come across in a very positive light. A bossy male security agent demands the destruction of the lemon grove. A bossy Palestinian man threatens Salma because of her relationship with her lawyer. The defense minister is obsessed with his career and may be having an affair with an assistant. The Palestinian lawyer himself seems to be as interested in advancing his career as in helping Salma, even though he actually cares for her.
The two women, however, are both admirable characters. Was that a conscious decision, to make the women “stronger” – in their quest for justice, for fairness, for peace – than the men? If so, is that a reflection of the political reality in that part of the world?
I'm always asked if this film is a feminist film. Maybe in the end, it's partly what you see. But it wasn't intended to be like that in any direct way. I'm not trying to say that if women were in power that they would act differently, or that things would be different. Think of Margaret Thatcher. I try not to go into black-and-white areas. I try not to present an absolute point of view in these situations because sometimes women are right, sometimes they're not. Sometimes men make the right decisions, sometimes not.
Now, I'm not sure about the lawyer's relationship with Salma. Did something really happen within her? Or was it because she's all alone and I think she deserves a new life? Salma is not supposed to be a stereotype. She's a lonely Palestinian widow- but if she has the power to fight the system to protect her trees, she should have the power to begin a new life.
I think the same thing applies to the other side. In a way, the minister is a product of his own society; his own society's expectations. He's a smart guy, but just like many ministers he doesn't go into the minor details. He never goes to her. He really could have resolved the matter easily, but he's bound by traditions and prejudices, and if you look at a wider scope that is an important part of the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
Though two-faced and insensitive, the defense minister never felt – to me, at least – like a total jerk. A sly and selfish politician, sure, but one who seemed to truly believe that the lemon grove could indeed pose a threat to his and his family's security. While working on the screenplay did you and co-writer Suha Arraf try to ensure that Lemon Tree would have a certain balance? In other words, it wouldn't be about heroes and villains on either side of the Palestinian-Israeli divide?
Absolutely. I could basically repeat your question without the question marks. Now, whatever you do you're walking through a minefield. Wherever you put your foot down, there's the possibility of an explosion because you're touching someone's feelings or fears or prejudices. I don't want to be politically correct, yet, I want to make a film that people can relate to. If there's a political element in this film, it's a “democratic” one. I don't want anyone to hate anybody because that's too easy. We all know that the Middle East is suffering from violence, indifference, and chaos that exist all over these countries. Yet, people are people are people.
Since I come from the Hollywood tradition of telling a good story, of presenting good characters, I want to make sure the film is working emotionally. I want to make sure it is seen by as many people as possible, so it's not just going to be shown at festivals. That's because I respect my audience. They deserve a thought-provoking film. If you have something to say, make sure people will listen to it. Else, why make a movie?
That's probably what led me to make a film that wouldn't alienate those who chose a side – for Israel, anti-Israel, for Palestinians, anti-Palestinians – before they watched the film. I wanted to neutralize those feelings. That way, those people could think, “I hate them, but I can cope with this Palestinian woman.” Or with the Israeli side.
If Rona Lipaz-Michael is the compassionate heart of “Lemon Tree,” Hiam Abbass is its soul. What was it like working with those two great actresses to create characters that have much more in common than mere appearances would make us believe? And what about working with fellow cast members Doron Tavory and Ali Suliman?
As I've said before, we wrote that script with Hiam in mind. We knew that she was the woman who would be cast as Salma, so that made the writing easy. She is the perfect combination of various types. In a way, she is like Salma, born in a small Palestinian village, but when she was about 20 years old, she broke away and moved to Paris. So, she has this mix of European sophistication and the qualities of a Palestinian woman of the West Bank. That gave the character an extra dimension.
With Rona, it was digging into her, psychologically, because on the surface she had nothing to do with Mira. She came from a different background. That meant having to go close to her own personality to try to find points in common with the character. I didn't want to create a stereotype. I didn't want to have a desperate housewife. I wanted the character to be more nuanced than that.
Doron Tavory had been in a film more than 20 years ago. Then he became a stage actor. He had that kind of reputation, that of a stage actor. But he was the right person from day one because he had the right look, personality, and sense of humor.
And Ali, in a funny way … Everyone in the cast is fantastic, but in a way Ali is the most perfect because he seamlessly became the character. Somehow, that character stuck to him and he to the character.
When I went to film school both here and in England [at the National Film School], I was trained to make sure I had all the elements to make a good film. But in the end, what really counts is the face on the screen. If that face is faking here and there, the film is not going to work. I don't give up until I get the right results.
How was Lemon Tree received in Israel? Has it been screened in the Palestinian territories? If so, what was the reaction like?
In France, Italy, Spain, Brazil, the film did really well. In Israel, it was a flop. I guess the main reason is that people just saw the one-liner about a Palestinian woman in court, and that sounded too political. But those who actually made it to the movie houses loved it. Now, it's doing well on DVD and television, so in the end it'll be a part of Israel's film history.
There are no movie theaters in the Palestinian territories, except one in Ramallah. But judging from Palestinian people that I've met all over the world, they love the film. They respect the portrayal of their side of the story. Although it's a story about a Palestinian woman, the film doesn't shy away from the problems in that country.
I saw that ugly wall as not only a divide between countries or cultures, but also between people – individuals. (In fact, there are lots of invisible walls in Lemon Tree.) I wouldn't say that Lemon Tree is a downbeat film, but – considering that the wall has a prominent place at the end – I wouldn't call it upbeat or hopeful, either. How would you describe it? And would say there's hope that that wall – and others like it (visible or not) around the world – will one day be torn down for good?
It's interesting because when I started working on the script I was full of anger. It was in 2006, when we had that vicious cycle of violence on both sides. I was writing out of anger. But you can't write a reasonable script out of anger. I cooled down eventually, and things began flowing.
The film is not upbeat or downbeat, but I think there's a sense of optimism at the end. All those people will keep on living, and maybe some will change. They will learn from their stories, and they will act differently next time around – even Salma, for her life is far from over. Tomorrow may still bring something better for her.
I don't think you can really survive in the Middle East without at least a few grams of hope. Else, why live in this place? Once you lose hope, you become indifferent. And that's probably the biggest danger, not only in the Middle East, but also all over the world. Think about those people in Darfur and what is being done about it.
The world is better informed; there's more information all around. Yet, everyone is thinking about his own life. For that reason, a lot of other people are left in the darkness. I think that's what I'm trying to do in my own way – to add a small ray of hope to our pretty dark world.