Casually clad in a black tee shirt and jeans over his stocky 59-year-old frame, Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis radiates a warm friendliness. He responds to questions with rapid-fire musings that rise above the din of the lunchtime crowd at a popular Manhattan restaurant, in nearly unaccented American English.
What brought him together with The Arty Semite is his latest film, “Zaytoun,” opening in New York on September 20, to be followed by a national release. With “Zaytoun,” Riklis returns to the Arab-Israeli issues that mark his best-known works, including “The Syrian Bride” and “Lemon Tree.” “Zaytoun” is the tale of an Israeli fighter pilot, shot down and captured by Palestinians in Beirut on the eve of the 1982 Lebanon war, and who forms an unlikely alliance with a remarkable adolescent boy from the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila.
Riklis began our conversation by explaining how the story developed from the draft of a screenplay by a Palestinian-American electrical engineer, Nader Rizq, who had labored for years on this first script. It reached him through Fred Ritzenberg (who became one of his producers), but Riklis had initially rejected it out of fatigue with Israeli-Arab themes.
Ralph Seliger: So it was a screenplay to begin with.
Eran Riklis: Yes, and not at my own initiative, which is quite rare. But at some point we decided we could work together on the next draft. Writing a screenplay is like adopting a child; at some point it becomes your own, through a process of discovery. The script was fully written by Nader Rizq. I, as always, was involved in shaping the drafts that evolved once I joined the project.
Is any part of it factual?
“Lore,” short for Hannelore and the title of a new film opening February 8, is the name of a strong-willed and idealistic teenager who tries to lead her four young siblings to safety through the war-ravaged and dangerous landscape of a German nation defeated in 1945. Her physical trek triggers an inner journey for this impressionable young person on the edge of adulthood. We gradually see her shed the Nazi faith she grew up with, and recoil against the hatefulness of the people around her.
After rousing them in the night and setting incriminating files on fire, the children’s uniformed father transports the family in an army truck to a farm in the countryside, and leaves them, ostensibly to return to the front. His crimes are left to the viewer’s imagination, but after Germany’s defeat becomes official, the distraught chain-smoking mother packs her bag and instructs Lore — played by Saskia Rosendahl, a striking young actress — to take the family’s remaining money and jewelry and to get the children to “Omi” (grandma), near Hamburg. She then dons a smart blue outfit and proceeds on foot to surrender to the American occupation authorities.
Along the way, Thomas, a fellow refugee, falls in with Lore and her siblings. He acts like a deus ex machina, getting them through savage territory as they journey from Bavaria to Omi’s house on Germany’s northern seacoast. There’s an element of mystery to this character: Is he really the Jewish survivor he claims to be?
Last year, in a nearly empty screening room, I saw what became an Academy Award finalist in the documentary category, “5 Broken Cameras.” I then interviewed filmmaker Guy Davidi about his background and his work on the film for The Arty Semite.
Recently I had another email conversation with Davidi, discussing how he’s faring with his film in the limelight, the nature of his collaboration with his Palestinian co-director Emad Burnat, and whether he knew if his colleague (a novice in the trade) would pursue filmmaking in the future.
When asked his view of the other Israeli-produced film nominated for best documentary, “The Gatekeepers,” he was reluctant to say much, citing an Academy rule prohibiting him from commenting on a fellow nominee. He responded mainly about his experience as a nominee with his Palestinian partner, but began with the political impact of the other work:
”The Gatekeepers” has put an end to the claim that Ehud Barak conveyed that there is no Palestinian partner; for me [this] is the most important achievement of the film and [on] the political discourse in Israel.
There’s a conceit among movie critics to be, well, critical. And “The Other Son,” a French film by director Lorraine Levy opening in the U.S. October 26, has its flaws. But it needs to be said upfront that, although it does not seem particularly realistic, the movie does a nice job on its own terms.
The story’s premise involves a baby mix-up at a Haifa hospital during the Iraqi missile attacks on Israel during the Gulf War of 1991. When Joseph (played by Jules Sitruk), grows up and is about to be inducted into the military, it’s found that his blood type is incompatible with his parents’. When a follow-up investigation concludes that he was born as the son of West Bank Palestinians, to a mother who happened to be in Haifa at the time, his enlistment is cancelled.
Joseph’s father, Alon (Pascal Elbé), is an army colonel while his mother, Orith (charmingly played by Emmanuelle Devos), is a physician who approves inquiring further into the mystery of Joseph’s biological parentage.
“Tears of Gaza,” a Norwegian documentary about the Gaza Strip under assault during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead of December 2008 and January 2009, is presented in Arabic with English subtitles. It may be characterized as “truthful propaganda.” There’s no reason to doubt most of what you see, but the film makes no apology for showing only one side.
The press notes indicate that the Norwegian director, Vibeke Løkkeberg, and her producer were prohibited by Israel and Egypt from entering Gaza. They recruited Gaza Palestinians to provide footage and find the speaking subjects:
Using Internet and phone… Løkkeberg… explained [to the Gaza production crew] that the film would not be [about] the politics of the war. Instead it would be a feature documentary that would begin by focusing on [the] daily life of people living in Gaza during the bombardment…. Løkkeberg wrote down questions they would ask…. Løkkeberg wanted her film shot so that the audience would identify with the children.
She succeeds: Yahya, a 12 year-old boy, and 11-year-old Rasmia happen to be lovely kids with atypically fair hair and eyes. Amira, 14, is a dignified young woman who wears a traditional headscarf. Their stories are compelling.
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