The drama and tension of life in the Middle East are a potential goldmine for filmmakers. Few have excavated that terrain more successfully than Israeli director Eran Riklis.
“Zaytoun” (Olive), which opened in New York September 20, is his latest movie to examine the region’s politics in micro-terms. There was an Israeli Druze cross-border wedding in “The Syrian Bride”; the destruction of a Palestinian woman’s lemon grove in “Lemon Tree,” and now “Zaytoun.”
Like the other films, Zaytoun has an elevator-pitch plot: an unlikely friendship between a young Palestinian boy and an Israeli fighter pilot downed over Lebanon. But like the others, a capsule summary does little justice to the nuance, intelligence and delicacy Riklis brings to his projects.
It’s 1982 and a civil war is ravaging Lebanon. Fahed (Abdallah el Akal) is a 12-year-old who lives with his father and grandfather in a Palestinian refugee camp. Both enthrall the youngster with tales of their old home in what is now Israel and carefully tend a young olive tree sapling they plan to plant on their return.
Fahed tries to pick up extra cash by selling gum and cigarettes outside the camp, but Lebanon is a dangerous place. The Lebanese seem to hate the Palestinians almost as much as they hate the Israelis. Fahed and his friends are forcibly recruited by a local PLO commander and undergo what passes for military training.