07 March, 2009

Etz Limon (Lemon Tree) (2008)

Lemon tree, 'green line'?

Once, when we lived in Oman on the Arabian Peninsula, writes Gerald Loftus, we visited a village perched in the rocky hills of the interior. We were there to see a falaj, one of the ancient irrigation canals cut into the stony hillsides, carrying precious water to small gardens and orchards. An Omani farmer took a liking to our small children, and offered us lemons plucked from one of his dozen or so trees. In hot, arid climates, these bright beautiful yellow fruit, standing out against the dark green leaves, are things of beauty.

And so it is in the West Bank – or more precisely, on the 'Green Line' that on paper separates Israel from the Occupied Territories – where Eran Riklis’s Lemon Tree (2008) is filmed. Never has a glass of fresh lemonade looked so inviting. That’s what visitors to the home of lead character Salma are offered, from her father’s orchard that she has inherited. From trees that she must protect when politics intrude into her simple life.

Riklis has visited this human terrain before, notably in his 2004 masterpiece, The Syrian Bride. Watching Lemon Tree, you have to remind yourself that this is an Israeli film, or rather, a film made by an Israeli director. But, as Riklis said in a Tikkun interview apropos of The Syrian Bride, when asked if it was a 'political film'.

First and foremost, this is a humane film. It deals with people who are caught inside politics, inside a political world. It’s a pro-people film. On the other hand, of course it contains political elements. In the Middle East in particular, almost everything that you do and refer to is political. Everything has consequences.

The same could be said of Lemon Tree, though it is political to a much greater degree. When you have the 'Separation Barrier', the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, and an Israeli cabinet minister as backdrops or characters in a film, it is political. Everything is political in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Just as Riklis is sensitive to the nuances of the complex relationship between occupier and occupied, he is a particularly talented observer of the relationships between men and women, in both Israeli and Arab cultures. Nazareth-born Hiam Abbass, who has already appeared in Riklis’ films, plays Salma with innate grace and intelligence. Not only does she have to confront Israeli neighbors bent on separating her from her lemon trees, but also has to navigate a male-dominated Palestinian society. Palestinian officialdom is shown as more troubled over matters of propriety than demonstrating any concern for this defiant widow’s attempts to protect her property.

On the Israeli side of the fence (literally), there is tension in the Minister’s household, where wife Mira (played by revelation Rona Lipaz-Michael) begins to see for herself the human costs of occupation. Eventually they must face the question: is it better to look out onto a luscious orchard (owned, admittedly by Palestinians of unknown security credentials) or to enjoy' the security offered by watchtowers and the Separation Barrier?

At the time, my viewing of Lemon Tree was sponsored by the women of Brussels film club Cinefemme (whose website has an insightful interview with Riklis), and whose members have been invited by the film’s distributor to provide commentary for a DVD 'bonus' segment. They will have much to discuss.

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus

106 mins. In Arabic, Hebrew, French and English.

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