Directed by Eran Riklis.
Starring Stephen Forff, Alice Taglioni, Ashraf Barhom, Ali Suliman and Abdallah El Akal.
In 1982, a young Palestinian refugee and an Israeli fighter pilot form a tentative bond as they attempt to cross war-torn Lebanon in order to return home.
Zaytoun is a historical drama depicting the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The film focuses on the bond that forms between a very young Palestinian refugee Fahed (Abdallah El Akal; David & Kamal) and an Israeli fighter pilot Yoni (Stephen Dorff; Immortals, Somewhere) as the pair attempt to get to the border after Yoni crash-lands in Beirut. The pair must overcome various obstacles (as one would expect in what is essential a road-movie) such as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Lebanese soldiers and their own conflicting beliefs.
Having studied the subject and been to the region, I have a deep interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was looking forward to the film. On paper, it seemed like an attempt to more honestly portray the two sides and the conflict in general, and the idea of showing a PLO-trained Palestinian (a murderous terrorist in the eyes of an Israeli) and a senior officer of the Israeli Defence Force (a murderous oppressor in the eyes of a Palestinian) coming to a mutual understanding, let alone forming a deep friendship, is quite a brave statement by Israeli director Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride, The Lemon Tree). In practice, however, it is only partially successful.
Riklis manages to avoid villanising or glorifying either side (even Yoni, whose role as a captured soldier would traditionally be a romantic, heroic role, is portrayed as being prepared to hurt children in order to get back to his country) but instead ends up portraying the Lebanese in a negative light as greedy and as child murderers. Yoni and Fahed’s journey to the border is entertaining, due to tense situations and moments of humour as they bond.
The title of the film, Zaytoun, means olive and refers to the olive tree Fahed carries. It belonged to his father, and Fahed is motivated to bring it back to Palestine and plant it. It is also a rather on-the-nose symbol of peace. Perhaps the message of the film is that it is up to the young to resolve this conflict and bring peace to the region?
The film successfully deals with some of the issues surrounding the conflict; for instance, Yoni and Fahed disagree over whether Palestine or Fahed’s father’s village even exists, and the point that both characters have been orphaned because of the decade- long conflict in poignant. However, it also shies away from many other issues, and wasn’t as insightful as I had hoped, instead opting to provoke an emotional response in the audience by being excessively sentimental in its third act: the final shot of the film is of Yoni shedding a tear. There are also several distracting plot contrivances, such as Fahed simply being able to “know” the way to the ruins of his father’s village.
It’s a good movie, with some very strong performances from the cast (it’s one of Dorff’s best performances since Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere in 2010, and the younger members of the cast especially stand out) and very good cinematography, filmed on location around parts of the Middle East; the depiction of war-torn Beirut and a Palestinian refugee camp being particular highlights. It’s certainly more nuanced than Steven Spielberg’s Munich in its portrayal of the conflict. It is perhaps a good introduction to issues surrounding the conflict, especially for younger audiences, but for those more aware of the situation it is perhaps a little simplistic and even forgettable. Overall, it’s just not as introspective or as daring as the premise could have been, and perhaps should have been.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★