I had mixed emotions watching this film, especially with the Israeli bombing of Gaza as a backdrop. I wondered if I would be able to handle an Israeli film in the circumstances, especially perhaps one that purported to be ‘liberal’.
There is certainly a good deal of pleasure to be had from the film. It is well acted, nicely shot (albeit on Super 16mm with some fairly iffy inserts of documentary footage, so best suited to smaller screens) and full of interesting ideas and narrative possibilities. I enjoyed almost all of the film, but felt ultimately frustrated.
(There are some SPOILERS in what follows – if you don’t like to know any aspects of the plot before seeing the film, don’t read on.)
The plot sees a Palestinian widow in her forties (Salma) symbolically living slap bang on the so-called ‘Green Line’ that separates the West Bank (nominally under the control of the Palestinian National Authority, but in practice occupied and subject to Israeli force) from Israel. The widow’s lemon grove of fifty trees lies between her house and the new home of the Israeli Defence Minister and his wife Mira (who chose the house). His secret service agents decree that the lemon grove must be uprooted as it is a threat to the minister’s security (and, by extension, the security of the State of Israel). As if to ram home the symbolism, the minister is named Israel Navon and since he is in charge of security, the possibilities of a parable are obvious. The widow not surprisingly objects to losing her grove even though the powerful men of her community suggest that her loss is nothing compared to what many others have lost and continue to lose at the hands of the Israelis.
The main problem with the film is that it appears to combine at least three different narratives which in turn draw upon at least three genres. First, it appears that we may be being offered a familiar neo-realist story about a woman fighting for her legal rights as she finds a lawyer and then follows the case through the courts. This narrative is based on all too common events and it was stories about Palestinians fighting their way through Israeli courts that prompted the original idea for the film. Mostly, the losses are houses and access to olive groves or grazing land but the ‘bittersweetness’ of the lemon helps the parable.
However, in a supporting narrative, the widow (played by the stunning Hiam Abbas, so good in The Visitor) gradually moves towards a close and potentially sexual liaison with the young lawyer that she hires. Such a liaison inevitably brings the possibility of community disapproval and I was reminded of the classic Hollywood melodrama All That Heaven Allows (dir Douglas Sirk 1955) and its virtual remake by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Fear Eats the Soul (Germany 1974). As in those films, the melodrama draws in the widow’s children, although they are far less concerned about their mother’s behaviour than in the Hollywood model – indeed their lack of concern/interest is the point. The melodrama also allows the filmmakers to include a number of ‘excessive’ sequences in which the general realist tone is replaced with something more expressive utilising sound effects and lighting. (The film’s title is picked up in the title song, ‘Lemon Tree’, which I remember from the Peter, Paul and Mary version in the 1960s: “Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat”. I can’t find out who sings the two main lines in the film, but you can hear them on the Israeli website.)
The third strand of the film is a form of satire on the Israeli media and political system. I found this quite difficult to follow in terms of what it was actually saying. My reading was that this was a liberal critique which nonetheless absolved the Israeli authorities of responsibility for what happened to the widow. It would be unfair to suggest that these three different strands are not connected and the main connection is via the two women, Salma and Mira (two mothers), who never speak to each other but who nonetheless exchange looks and understanding across the Green Line. This could be argued to be a classic instance of displacing the potentially national political narrative onto a ‘personal human interest story’.
In fact, the overall political situation is picked up in the two other narratives. The lawyer makes sure that the journey through the courts catches the attention of the international press and this in turn links to his own role in the melodrama (as a student in Russia with a small daughter still in Moscow). This also links to the general discourse about the Israeli media agencies which are pursuing the Defence Minister via his gradually disintegrating marriage. So, lots of connections – but also quite a few plot holes. For instance, Salma has two daughters according to various conversations, but we only see one – where is the other? More importantly, there is an ‘attack’ on the minister’s house which conveniently supports his case and also leads to troops invading Salma’s house. But we never hear what kind of attack or who was responsible – was it a set-up by the minister and/or the security forces? Are we supposed to work that out for ourselves?
On the plus side (at least for me) the film does not have a conventional happy ending. In this sense the director can claim to be offering a ‘realistic’ view of an impossible situation. I desperately want the widow to ‘win’, but of course the Palestinians face a no-win situation and the strongest condemnation of Israeli policy towards the occupation of Palestinian lands that the film can muster is Mira’s comment to a journalist that there are ‘no limits’ to what Israeli society will seek to do to maintain its position (or words to that effect – I can’t remember the exact line). On reflection that is quite a strong allusion to make.
I realise that there is a danger of appearing hypocritical in reviewing this film vis-a-vis our earlier discussion of Waltz With Bashir. We objected to that film’s exclusion of the voices of the Lebanese that were treated as simply ‘other’ by the Israeli soldiers. Lemon Tree offers a voice to Palestinians on at least the same level as the Israelis. It takes us into Ramallah and a 1948 refugee settlement and also shows us the difficulties Palestinians face in crossing the Green Line and getting into Jerusalem, all of which carries a sense of authenticity (even though for audiences unfamiliar with the realities of life in the occupied territories, it’s still only a partial view). Added to this, there certainly is an attempt to introduce some of the long-running issues facing Palestinians into each of the three narrative strands – the stresses of exile and migration, the spiritual bonds of land passed down through generations which are so casually broken by the ‘imperatives of Israeli military policy’, the attack on Palestinian agricultural methods and the contrast with the agricultural prowess of Israeli kibbutzim etc. I acknowledge all of this, but I think that by focusing more closely on one specific story, some of these issues might have been explored with more impact and we might have learned more about Salma (or Mira – I found her to be an interesting character who could have carried a more detailed narrative).
In institutional terms the film is a co-production with familiar partners in France and Germany. Director and co-writer Eran Riklis is an Israeli who has also lived in Brazil, Canada and the US and who studied at the National Film School in the UK. His previous films have covered similar territory and include The Syrian Bride (2004) focusing on the Druze community in the Golan Heights. Riklis was interviewed in Der Spiegel when Lemon Tree was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in January 2008 and he makes a spirited and convincing case for his approach. Perhaps I haven’t emphasised enough how carefully the film avoids making the main characters into symbolic types – and how much humour there is in many of the scenes. Riklis has an absurdist eye and he recognises how ridiculous some of the situations are – ridiculous but also frightening. Having walked under the ‘goon towers’ of the Israeli occupiers on the West Bank and waited to get through checkpoints I have some idea of what it might be like, but still no real feeling for what it’s like to live with them day in and day out. The hideous ‘separation wall’ appears in the film and Riklis uses the image very well. I was eventually able to discover that the co-writer of Lemon Tree (and The Syrian Bride) an Israeli-Arab woman, Suha Arraf, who trained at the Tel Aviv Film School and who one day hopes to direct a feature. I hope she does and I look forward to seeing it.
Lemon Tree has been released in the UK by a new distributor Unanimous Pictures (which also released The Visitor). At least we are now getting the opportunity to see these Israeli films (The Syrian Bride was not released in the UK) and I’m certainly grateful. I think I need to see more, if only to get my head around how to approach such an ideological minefield. I did feel frustrated watching the film, but the more I think about it the more I recognise the skill of the filmmakers and the potential for the film to entertain audiences and perhaps get them to think. I certainly urge more people to see it and to engage with the issues.
The Israeli website for the film includes a statement by the director and further background information.