Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour
When veteran Israeli director Eran Riklis made The Syrian Bride several years ago--a film focused almost entirely on the Druze community in Israel, with a few minor Jewish characters--he had joined the burgeoning community of Israeli filmmakers whose work is both markedly Israeli but also tinged with an international or European feel. Though clearly situated in their country of origin, their films are made for audiences who don't look at cinema so much as propaganda but as a force for critical thinking. In his latest movie (a Berlin Film Fest Audience Award winner), Lemon Tree, Riklis provides, if not a critical voice, then an empathetic one--one that often gets overlooked when the political discourse gets overheated.
Now that Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made, for him, something of an about-face--offering a truncated version of the two-state solution to the Palestinians--the release of a film that presents a humanizing, sympathetic view of Palestinians, resonates in a more powerful way than ever before.
Based on a true story, widow Salma (the great Hiam Abbass) defends her lemon tree field when a new Israeli Defense Minister moves next door to her and threatens to have her grove torn down. Living there for decades on the green line--the border between Israel and the West Bank--Salma has endured tragedy and loneliness when the Minister moves into his house opposite her comforting trees.
His Israeli security team declares her grove a threat to the his safety and orders it uprooted. In horror and defiance, Salma enlists an initially reluctant young Palestinian lawyer, Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman), to fight for her fruit-bearing foliage--and they go all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. In addition, despite differences and borders, Salma and the Defense minister's wife Mira--trapped in her new home and unhappy life--develop an invisible bond. Along the way, forbidden ties also grow between Salma and Ziad at great risk to them both. This legal and personal journey throws Salma into the dark, complex, and sometimes funny, tumult of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians.
Q; In both this and The Syrian Bride, you not only challenge certain preconceptions of Israelis, but you also challenge preconceptions of Palestinian or Arabic scenarios; you really like to get yourself into trouble.
ER: I change my address every [film]… And my name [laughs].
Q; You’re of Ashkenazi [European Jewish] descent but Israeli-born?
ER: I’m Israeli-born. But I’m no martyr, not at all—though I fear nothing. In the end, it’s only a film, for chrissake! I mean, I know you can be burned for it, but…
Q; Your co-writer Suha Arraf, the writer on The Syrian Bride, is Palestinian, right?
ER: From Israel.
Q: It would be interesting to sit in on your writing sessions.
ER: That’s funny, because we both believe there are no taboos. You can touch anything. When people come to me and say that wouldn’t happen in a certain society, obviously I check it, because if there’s a degree of truth that this or that would never happen, fine. But even then, you can always be controversial.
And it’s funny, because when I look at both films, I don’t see anything controversial about them. But obviously it’s all in the eye of the beholder. As far as it being legitimate for me, as an Israeli, to go into the Palestinian society, I have the right as a filmmaker, as long as I respect the truth and am honest about it. Truth and honesty are probably a guiding light for me, and if I use them correctly, these words, then I’m fine.
Q; You worked with Suha on The Syrian Bride--was there a difference this time around or did she take a similar approach?
ER: We got to know each other much better. Basically we had a very good relationship during The Syrian Bride and we developed it in Lemon Tree. Now there’s a kind of mutual understanding. Of course, I’m the director, so I can always take care of the material any way I want. But when you’re co-writing, it’s a matter of chemistry. It gets better with age—that’s the only answer I can give.
Q; Some directors like to work with the same people. How did you and Hiam—who also had a big part in The Syrian Bride--shape the characters to make sure there wasn't a trace of one slipping over to the other?
ER: The definition of the character in Lemon Tree is totally different from that in Syrian Bride. First of all, the Salma character carries this film on her shoulders, so it was really a wider spectrum of emotions and psychological depth [for Hiam to handle]. Beyond that, the challenge for both her and me was to really overcome the stereotype of a Palestinian peasant, a simple woman, a poor woman struggling against a system—and as I speak, I think “Oh my God, that sounds terrible.”
But with Hiam and the way we approached the writing, we said "OK, she is a peasant, she’s not educated. But she has this inner energy which keeps her alive all these years as a widow, which keeps her open to the option of having a second love in her life, however controversial, and she has this strength to actually go all the way to the Supreme Court." So already we’re talking about a different perception of a Palestinian woman.
I guess what Hiam brings to that is the fact that on one hand, she was born in a small village in Israel and grew up there; on the other hand, she's spent 22 years now in France, so she’s actually Parisian [as much as she's a Palestinian]. She’s a very European, sophisticated lady. I think that kind of tension and that kind of balance creates a different kind of character and solves the problem in a way. I never had an issue of, “Is this close to what she did in The Syrian Bride or not?”
Q; You hear about the Palestinians' feelings of futility. Yet Salma resolves to fight this in the court, where it would seem impossible to win. You had to make that work and make it plausible that she would go so far as to believe she could go forward. You talk about fighting the system and taking it to the court, and having to make it seem convincing.
ER: Because we’re all sophisticated and naïve at the same time; that applies to Salma as well. Basically, on one hand, at night when she sits in bed on her own and she says, “Why am I doing this?” the answer is probably, “I’m stupid.” On the other hand, “Maybe I’m not. Maybe there is a chance.” And I think you always have to have this notion that things could be different. Maybe for you it’s like the lottery in a way. Maybe I’ll win, even though the chances are…
When you think about the Israeli legal system, it’s not obvious that they’re going to come up with this decision. You never know, because it is a legal system that works. So, of course, like any legal system anywhere in the world—nobody can convince me otherwise—it’s always affected by politicians, politics, the mood in the street, the security situation, all that. And yet, there’s always a judge who would say “I don’t care. This woman has her rights, I’m going to grant her her rights.”
It’s a little bit like Ziad’s decision in a way, which obviously is not very good for Salma. And yet the trees are still rooted in the ground, so there is something symbolically which gives a kind of future for her, and for her trees.
Q: In this country, widows are free to have another relationship again and even marry. Even though the Palestinians are supposed to be secular—it was hard for her to consider marrying again.
ER: It’s not about religion. She can get married, it’s not an official issue. The thing is that the family of the dead husband would expect to take care of that. It’s almost like, you can marry again, but you you have to marry one of the brothers, or somebody close to the family or a friend of the family. Certainly you can't go and marry a younger guy and he's much younger than her.
In the script, Ziad was described as in his early 40s, which was not that controversial. Then when I met Ali in the audition--I already knew him because he had a small role in The Syrian Bride—he was so charming, that I said “OK! He’s the guy. But how do I justify this relationship?” I had huge fights with Suha, because she said it would never work in a Palestinian society. I said “Give me a break! It works everywhere!”
You know, societies are societies, but things that happen behind closed doors—you never know. And I thought it added a great layer of tension, because of the fact is she’s under scrutiny all the time anyway. She’s under a microscope all the time and here is this young guy—on one hand, he’s the only one helping her. He’s the only one doing something for her for no money, or for minimal money. And on the other hand, he is really a kind of no-go in a way, and yet she fights for him. But also, to a certain degree, it’s a doomed love affair anyway, so the chances of it really happening are probably slim.
Q: The movie is not a comedy, but you show these humorous sides. Of course, the defense minister is one of the characters you’re really parodying… Did you have certain people in mind that you were referencing?
ER: The current prime minister was a good model for me. And Ehud Barak, who is now defense minister [and was a Prime Minister], was a good model [as well]. All these generals are good example, in terms of, they’re always pompous and with “Security Security” [on their minds]. But they can joke around, have kids, are married, and are also people.
I really tried to treat the minister like I treated all the other characters, and in that sense, I love him. He’s intelligent, but he’s also insensitive—who isn’t?
Q; He was the perfect parody of an Israeli politician.
ER: I think so. Yet, when you see him at the end of the film sitting there on his own in his empty house, you feel for him. Basically, he blew it. He could have just opened his eyes a little bit and changed this whole story, just like that. Like his wife says, he says, “What do you want from me? I can’t change history.” But in fact, he could have! At least, in this particular case.
Q; The Syrian Bride really isn’t so much about a place. This movie is all about a place. Was that an additional challenge--to getting locations visually--or could you have found this in any number of places?
ER: No. In fact, it was very tricky. Getting the lighting right, and the trees right, and the lemons right, it’s like a nightmare. Even the two houses at the grove were shot in two different places. We had to be very clever about [it]. You see Salma walk out of her house, and then a month later, I was shooting her arriving at the minister’s house, so it was quite tricky film-wise. But I think it looks really good in that sense.
Q; So why did you decide on a lemon grove rather than what would immediately be assumed, some kind of olive grove.
ER: That’s the answer. When I thought about olive trees, I said "No. I cannot see olive trees." The lemons have everything for me. They're fresh, sweet and sour, they have all the elements that you want. Visually they're beautiful. And I felt using olive trees was just overused symbolism that you can’t get away with.
Q; Was there any symbolism intended—the lemons for Palestinians, [olives] for Jews...
ER: Not really. It’s corny, because the first thing I wrote was Lemon Tree and I quoted the song, you know, the American song...
Q; I couldn’t get the damn song out of my head!
ER: It’s funny, because most people in Israel don’t know the song. But for me, [those were] the first lines I wrote. “Lemon tree… lemon tree so pretty.” So, I just found it a little fresher than any other symbol you could use. Certainly olive trees are really overused—you see them on the news all the time.
Q; Didn’t you want to make an Arabic/Middle Eastern version of that song...?
ER: There it was in the opening titles!
Q; In writing a screenplay, are you thinking about the music?
ER: Well, like a lot of filmmakers I’m a frustrated musician. Seriously. I wanted to be a musician. I learned a lot of instruments… I don’t play anything now. My son is a jazz pianist who’s actually studying here in New York at the New School.
At least, when you think of classical music, making a film is a little bit like composing a classical piece of music. And certainly the performance of a film is almost like the performance of a symphonic orchestra, in terms of all the elements coming together to crystallize into one beautiful thing.
But it’s not something I follow. It’s just intuitively—it happens because I connect well with music. I love music. And it’s true that when I look at all my films, there was always some kind of musical link. In most of them, at least.
Q; Is this simply a David & Goliath story--"Salma's last person who would challenge the system... Can she succeed?" If you ultimately had to sum up this film, how would you do it?
ER: It's a Mediterranean Erin Brockovich. I guess David and Goliath is probably a good example too. Even though I really don’t care for the headlines, I want to go beyond them. It’s really about the small details that make up this very simple story. Because in the end it’s a very simple story. It’s lemons, two women, and a problem.
Q; You also humanize the perceptions. Usually it's the Palestinians are "this" and the Jews are "that," but in one way or another you humanize everybody.
ER: For me, everybody has his moment of grace. You can be the security guy who has nothing on his mind but security, but in the end—the guy that lets them through at the roadblock [past] the security services, he’s also the kind of guy who could have said, “Forget about it.” But he said, “Go ahead.” So I think nobody is really evil in my films.
Q; The relationship between the defense minister's wife Mira [Rona Lipaz-Michael] and Salma shows there's that sort of an invisible connection. In the context of Israeli-Palestinian issues, are you presenting this as a metaphor of a relationship that doesn’t succeed even though they have a certain invisible bond if only they'd listened to each other... Do you find the conflict between Palestine and Israel, that they just need to listen to each other?
ER: It’s all about listening. It’s all about calming down for a minute and listening to each other and respecting each other on one hand. On the other hand, I think what I show in the film is more or less reality.
Mira represents a lot of Israelis, who do listen to the other side--yet there’s a limit to how far you can go. It’s always, "OK, I can respect you," but will they ever be friends? Not really. Is Mira really going to change in the sense that she’s going to go now and demonstrate every week? Not really. But the fact that she develops an awareness of the other side, of the enemy, and also has a self-awareness, I’m satisfied with that.
The same thing happens with Salma—suddenly, the other side is not this huge threatening machine that’s coming to take her lemons. There’s also somebody else there looking at her and feeling compassionate about her, and I’m sure Salma will be different…
When you look at the final image of Salma at the end of the film--when she’s looking at the wall—Salma has a small smile there, which is almost like saying "OK, I can accept this, I’m going to keep fighting, and my life is not devastated."
I think that’s part of a sense of growing, growing, in terms of, you know, there’s always a new day. It’s almost like with Gone With The Wind... “Tomorrow’s a new day,” or whatever the quote is. In that sense, I tried to keep an optimistic feel to the whole thing, because otherwise, why go on?
Q; How do audiences react to your films?
ER: I’m an audience guy. Seriously. I make films for an audience. I’m not about festivals and I’m not about media, really. No, the biggest enjoyment is to see a full house and have people excited about your film. In that sense, I think I have an American way of thinking. I put story and emotion first as well, and only then, politics.
I really don’t care about the politics as much, because I think in the end, whether it’s an arthouse or popular movie, audiences wants to have the same kind of feeling. They want to care about the characters. For me, that’s the most important thing.
Q; Do you ever want to have another lemon in your life after this?
ER: Yeah, I don’t mind lemons. They’re a fine food.