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The Story Behind "Zaytoun"

If you’ve been monitoring Israeli film over the past ten years or so, you will be aware that there is an ongoing effort to promote the reputation of the government through subterfuge. Since the days of outright propaganda are long past, what you see more and more are films that stress reconciliation with the Palestinians in the old-fashioned Hollywood liberal mould found in something like “The Defiant Ones”, a film that starred Tony Curtis as a southern white racist (a most unlikely role for a Brooklyn Jew) and African-American actor Sidney Poitier, who was so frequently cast as the long-suffering symbol of a race that needed to be integrated into American society.

On February 8, 2014 I posted a brief review of “Zaytoun”, an Israeli film that despite its resemblance to “The Defiant Ones” was redeemed by its Palestinian lead character:

“Zaytoun” is an Israeli film that is the counterpart of Peace Now type liberalism in which Israeli and Palestinian reconciliation is based on anything except an abolition of the existing asymmetric power relationships. Not surprisingly, the film is seemingly inspired by Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones” that brought together  Black and white racist prison escapees who are forced to cooperate even though they would kill each other given the chance. Chained at their wrists, they are one step ahead of the law and an even smaller step ahead of sticking a knife into each other.

In “Zaytoun”, the shotgun marriage is between Fahed, a young Palestinian boy who lives in the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, and Yoni, an Israeli pilot whose jet has been shot down in the skies over Beirut during the chaotic civil war of 1982. Fahed dreams of visiting his ancestral village in Israel and eventually decides to help lead Yoni to the Israeli border in exchange for helping him visit his family’s long-abandoned house. He wears a key to its door around his neck during the long trek there, as well as a potted olive tree that he hopes to plant in the fields surrounding his village. The relationship between the two is strained from the outset, all the more so since Fahed’s father has been killed in an Israeli bomb strike just days earlier. Suffice it to say that the likelihood of such a pairing in real-life Lebanon in 1982 was less than zero. It is just a device of director Eran Riklis to make the kind of points he has made before in films such as the 2008 “Lemon Tree” in which goodhearted Israelis come to the aid of a Palestinian woman trying to protect her modest grove against an IDF threat to cut it down.

Despite its liberal pretensions, the film is still worth watching for its ability to tell an old-fashioned dramatic tale made all the more worthwhile by a stellar performance by Abdallah El Akal, a 15-year-old actor who lives in Tel Aviv and who has been a professional actor since the age of 7. I was surprised to discover that he was a professional since he comes across as exactly the same sort of person who he plays, a street urchin scrambling to survive.

The film is also probably made more tolerable because the screenwriter Nader Rizq is Palestinian and manages to convey some of the realities of his people despite the overarching liberal Zionist agenda of its director and producers.

Last week I heard from screenwriter Nader Rizq, who had a startling revelation about changes made to his screenplay in violation of his integrity as an artist and spokesman for his people’s rights. Rizq told me that my assessment of “the overarching liberal Zionist agenda of its director and producers” was right on the money and advised me to look at the website he created to show what the Israeli producers had done to his film: www.zaytounthemovie.com.

I strongly urge you to go to Rizq’s website and read the entire sad story for yourself but do want to include a key section:

As financing fell into place and pre-production began toward the end of 2011 however, troubling hints of censorship started to appear.

First it was a request to alter a scene that showed the effects of Israeli phosphorus and cluster bombing on the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut.

The scene had been in the script for years and demonstrated how phosphorus shrapnel continues to burn inside the body of its victim for days. The only recourse is to keep the wound soaked in water, a resource particularly scarce in war time. Also illustrated was how cluster bombs kill and maim.

In late 2011 Israeli interests objected to the depiction of chemical weapons.

Immediately director Eran Riklis insisted “This must be out of the script”.  American producer Frederick Ritzenberg suggested it was “Best to avoid controversy… it will detract from the film.”

The chemical weapons were written out reluctantly with the hope that this was the end of it. After all, Eran had been sending notes since 2008 and it was reasonable to assume he had plenty of time to make all the major adjustments he needed to the screenplay.

By the time shooting started, all the hospital scenes showing the effects of Israeli air raids on the population of the camps were completely eliminated.

zaytounStill from “Zaytoun.”

As a follow-up I decided to look at how my colleagues in the movie review business evaluated the film, particularly its message. Tom Long of the Detroit News said the film “dares to find common ground and hope amidst political confusion.” Trevor Johnstone of Time Out referred to “the belief that hope begins with individual decency.”

I have not seen any of Eran Riklis’s other films but I can understand why Nader Rizq might have considered him initially as a reliable partner. Riklis is a past master of these “individual decency” type films. For example, his 2008 “Lemon Tree” tells the story of a Palestinian widow trying to prevent the destruction of her grove by the next-door neighbor, the Israeli Defense Minister. Despite bonding with the man’s wife, the grove is destroyed.

In 2008 Riklis gave an interview to the European Film Academy in which he disavowed any “political” motives in making “The Lemon Tree”:

I think today, in 2008, you cannot really make political films. You have to make human films which deal with political issues. In this film the people find themselves as targets – they are in the middle of a political conflict. In the 1970s we had the political films, for instance Costa-Gavras. I think today the world is too sophisticated, too well informed and also a little bit tired – no one really cares.

They say that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. For me the film director’s disclaimer that he or she was not making a “political” film amounts to the same thing. Over and over I have found this excuse being made for some of the most savagely propagandistic films imaginable, starting with “The Hurt Locker”, a Kathryn Bigelow film that depicted an American GI in Iraq befriending an Iraqi boy as if the kindness shown toward him is meant to balance all the savagery his unit directs against the “hadjis”.

For most screenwriters, a job is just a job. People like Clifford Odets and William Faulkner went to Hollywood to make a fat paycheck no matter how many times they tried to convince others and themselves that some kind of higher calling was involved.

For Palestinians, it is a different story entirely. Palestinian filmmaking over the past 20 years or so has not only been artistically of the highest order but also a solid part of the overall effort to tell the story of dispossession.

I do recommend a viewing of “Zaytoun” even if the Israelis have mangled Rizq’s screenplay. The final scene of the Palestinian boy seeing the family home that was lost in the Nabka is one of the most moving that I have seen in this body of work. The violence done to his screenplay is evidence that Zionism is vulnerable to truth telling. Let us hope that Rizq’s next film stands on its grounds since I am sure that it will hold nothing back.

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