Zaytoun is a film about a most improbable and remarkable friendship between Fahed, a 12-year-old Palestinian refugee, and Yoni, a 30-year-old Israeli combat pilot. The film explores a liminal space between make-believe and reality, between a boy and a man, between Arab and Israeli, all set in the chaos of 1982 Beirut just weeks before the infamous invasion of the Shatila refugee camp where 700-800 Palestinians were slaughtered by the Lebanese Christian Phalangists with the tacit support of the Israeli armed forces. This liminal space extends to the very geography of the movie's setting which takes place in the no man's land between Lebanon and Israel, a strange borderland where horror is so dreamlike and prosaic, where hopes for peace are so remote, and where everyday reality ia a struggle for survival, control, and power
Power and powerless are the essential elements that drive the narrative of this film.
A powerless 12-year-old boy imagines in a fantasy of omnipotence that he shoots down an Israeli pilot who drops bombs in daily sorties from the apparent omnipotent cocoon of his jet plane. Is it possible that a 12-year-old boy can reverse his powerlessness of being a Palestinian refugee by reducing a fallen pilot to a state of helpless vulnerability that magically turns into a shared initiatory journey across land-mined physical, psychological, and cultural boundaries? The film's audience is asked to suspend disbelief and buy into a narrative driven by the boy's wish to memorialize his recently slain father by planting a barely surviving olive tree in the family' ancestral village that is in the dreamed of Palestine, located now in Israel. To make it even more dreamlike, we come to see that the pilot who accompanies the boy on his quest may have been the very person who killed his father by dropping a bomb on him. An initial viewing of the film absorbs one in trying to sort out the chaos of the dramatic action that unfolds in the very first scene set in Beirut's Martyrs' Square, a bombed out war zone that is also a daily marketplace of bartering, of weddings, and of refugee boys imagining they are world renowned soccer stars who can dodge the bullets of the Lebanese militia that would confine them to their camp.
There is so much to track in the chaotic unfolding of the narrative that it takes a second viewing of the film -- when one knows what happens in the plot -- to realize that this movie is most essentially a study of character, of relationship, of hatred turning into friendship. In both plot and character, the film has been dismissed by some sophisticated critics as too simplistic, too idealistic, too much a wish-fullfillment. One can understand all the criticisms, but as in baseball, judging the value of this film is a game of inches. If one sees the trajectory of this film as landing in fair territory, not foul, it is a film about the potential for transcendence through friendship, about the mutual initiation of two characters into their respective humanity, and about beauty in the midst of a nightmare.
The performances of the film's central characters are magnificent and give this film legs to stand on for a long time. Their relationship is transformative to Fahed, to Yoni, and to most in the audience. Fahed, played by Abdallah El Akai, has a supercharged, gum-smacking attitude that is infectious. His attitude is matched by a face that is so mobile and expressive that it is hard to say in words how appealing, charismatic, and convincing he is. His performance is fully matched and amplified by Stephen Dorff who plays Yoni, the Israeli pilot, who has his own trickster wiliness that allows him to keep pace with Fahed and even one-up him on occasion in their life and death, cat and mouse game. Dorff's powerful performance is anchored by a voice that is so rich and resonant that it almost becomes a homeland in itself. The dynamics of this complicated relationship are rich and supple. They form the true heart of the movie and play themselves out around a series of deceptively simple props, each of which becomes a sub-plot in itself: the olive tree, the gum, the gun, the keys, a few photographs, a soccer ball and aviator's sunglasses. In some ways, it takes only a few, simple external elements to tell this complicated story of friendship, primarily because the acting of El Akai and Dorff is so compelling that one is carried in the mutual embrace of their emotional entanglement throughout the film.
After viewing the film twice, I met with producer Fred Ritzenberg who told me the story of making the film. He said that for the first three years he devoted to developing the project, he felt like he was in a large, darkened room. He had faith that he would eventually find a doorway through which he could proceed to make the film. When the opportunity arose to meet with producer Gareth Unwin who had recently won an Oscar for The King's Speech, Ritzenberg discovered the doorway by teaming up with Unwin as co-producers. They were joined by the fine director, Eran Rilkis, and began assembling their superb cast. The rest is history. I think in some ways, we all may still be in Mr. Ritzenberg's position when we try to imagine our way out of the immense darkened room that is the tortured history of Israel and Palestine -- although it may take us many more decades to find the doorway out. Perhaps this film should be seen as a flicker of hope of our finding an end to the dark impasse that is the ancient, recurring history of the middle east.