Lemon Tree’ Offers Microcosm of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Talented Israeli writer-director Eran Riklis (“The Syrian Bride,” “Cup Final”) returns to the screen with “Lemon Tree,” a poignant depiction of the human costs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that doesn’t overtly take sides. Commanding the screen is Palestinian-French actress Hiam Abbass (who’s also on screen these days in “The Limits of Control” and previously acted in films including “The Syrian Bride,” “The Visitor,” “Paradise Now,” “Satin Rouge” and “Munich”). Abbass gives a quietly stunning performance using few words, deftly employing non-verbal communication — facial expressions, eye movements and body language — to express a vast range of intense emotions.
Newly appointed Israeli Defense Minister Israel Navon (Doron Tavory) moves into a new home on the border of the West Bank. For his protection, extensive security arrangements are implemented, including multiple guards, a watchtower with sentry, and a fence. The Israeli Secret Service quickly concludes that Palestinian neighbor Salma Zidane’s (Abbass) grove of lemon trees — which Navon’s wife Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael) describes as “charming” — constitutes a security threat that must be removed. Theoretically, terrorists could harbor in the grove, sneak up to the fence, and launch an attack.
A widower, Salma depends on the lemon trees for much of her meager income. She’s offered compensation by the Israeli government (which reminds her it’s under no legal obligation to do so), but she’s warned by a Palestinian elder that “we don’t take their money.” More important, the trees are a legacy that has been in her family for more than 50 years. The mismatched groves set against an imposing security apparatus also stands as an important symbol of the conflict, as Israeli director vividly illustrates the uneven balance of power while at the same time portraying both sides’ flaws.
The proud Salma is referred to a rising young Palestinian lawyer, Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman from “Paradise Now”), who takes the case despite the long odds. After losing in military court, they appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court. Salma’s plight gains media attention, portraying her as an underdog bullied by her powerful neighbor and threatening to embarrass Israel Navon.
Still, he’s dismissive of the suit, but Mira is sympathetic to Salma’s ordeal. The two women have more in common than expected. Both have children living abroad in Washington, D.C.: Mira’s daughter is a student at Georgetown University while Salma’s son works in a restaurant, sending home money every month. Both are trapped by their cultures’ traditional repression of women’s roles. Mira is a virtual prisoner in her shaky marriage — her husband is likely cheating on her — and in her home, where her security detail forbids her to leave the property. Meanwhile, Salma’s increasingly close bond with her young lawyer, about the age of her son, draws disapproving scrutiny from the Palestinian community.
Both women forge an unlikely bond as they defy circumstances — for one personal, for the other political — that oppress them, though more powerful forces threaten to drown out their principles and uproot their lives.
Lemon Tree (Etz Limon) (Arabic, Hebrew, French, and English with subtitles; 106 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema 4.5 out of 5 stars
‘12’ Angry Moscow Men Russian writer-director Nikita Mikhalkov (“Burnt by the Sun,” “The Barber of Siberia”) successfully transplants American director Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic “12 Angry Men” (itself a remake of 1954 CBS teleplay) with “12,” a 2008 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. “12” works not simply as a riveting courtroom drama — it also serves as an intelligent metaphor for the difficulties faced by post-Soviet Russians in forming a common social identity.
In modern-day Moscow, a jury of all men (despite the contemporary setting) begins deliberations at the end of a murder trial in which a Chechen teenager (Apti Magamaev) is accused of murdering his Russian foster father, a military officer who sought to adopt the youth after his parents died. At first glance, it looks to be a slam-dunk case, so the jury members are already looking ahead to their planned appointments for the rest of the day. The elected foreman conducts an initial secret ballot that results in an 11-1 vote favoring a guilty verdict.
After vocal surprise from the jury members, the one holdout, an engineer (Sergei Makovetsky), announces himself. Almost timidly, he explains his reasoning: With a charge of such gravity, shouldn’t the jury at least discuss the merits of the case? Though angry at the engineer for seemingly wasting their time, the men accept the inevitable and reluctantly get down to business.
The ensuing debate leads the jury members, one by one, to become increasingly doubtful of the prosecution’s allegations. To make their points, the jury members tell very personal and dramatic anecdotes that serve as allegories for the facts under consideration. Their oratories can be apparently tangential, insightful, moving, and/or shocking. As they reveal themselves, the characters become over the top, but in a dramatically beneficial manner, always entertaining. And the lively story never seems to lag despite the film’s long running length.
12 (Russian and Chechen with subtitles; 159 min.; scope) Landmark’s E Street Cinema 4.5 out of 5 stars
‘Garden’: Political Hot Potatoes
American director-producer Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s “The Garden” — Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature — shares a fascinating look at one controversial example of the local political process at work. In 1986, the city of Los Angeles acquired an empty lot in South Central L.A. for million from developer Ralph Horowitz, intending to develop an incinerator — a proposal that was abandoned after community protests led by powerful black activist Juanita Tate.
In 1992, after the Rodney King riots, L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley accepted an L.A. Food Bank idea to convert the city-owned empty property into a 14-acre community garden. Founder Doris Bloch recalled, “The people here are poor and they deserve to grow their own food. Land, people, food — it’s a pretty simple idea. Happy days.” The South Central Farm grew into the largest urban farm in the United States. Farmers, mostly lower-income Latino immigrants, maintained their own family plots, and the garden became a source of pride in the Latino community.
In 2003, in a secret deal motivated by political reasons, the city sold the land back to Horowitz for roughly the same million despite a large rise in property values. In January 2004, Horowitz then gave notice to the farmers that they would be evicted as he intended to develop the property.
The farmers didn’t accept the eviction sitting still and rallied to keep their garden alive. They eventually enlisted legal representation from civil rights lawyer Dan Stormer, along with help from other influential allies, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), former Black Panther Deacon Alexander, and entertainment stars Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Daryl Hannah, Martin Sheen and Danny Glover.
Horowitz offered to sell the lot to the farmers for million. The Annenberg Foundation actually offered to provide the funds to buy the lot, but Horowitz declined to sell at that point, claiming that he had been vilified in the media and had been the recipient of anti-Semitic remarks.
The documentary’s evenhanded tone enhances its credibility as a valid case study of how the levers of power are pulled. Implicitly, Kennedy sides with the farmers. Nonetheless, the director takes care to demonstrate balance in his coverage of all the positions involved, giving everybody a chance to have their say. And each side believes strongly in their conviction that they are right. The passion involved creates stirring human drama that doesn’t seem contrived.
The Garden (English and Spanish with subtitles; 80 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema 4 out of 5 stars
Please see International FilmClips for detailed listings available at press time.
National Gallery of Art “Profils Paysans: The French Farm” (May 16-17) presents a trilogy by Raymond Depar’on, also a Magnum photographer and photojournalist, depicting country life in France’s Rhone region near Villefranche-sur-Saône. “The Film Memoir” (May 24, 30 and 31) includes recent works by distinguished directors Arnaud Desplechin (“L’Aimée), Guy Maddin (interviewed by The Washington Diplomat in July 2008 for “My Winnipeg”) and Agnès Varda (“The Beaches of Agnès”). (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film
DC International Children’s Films As part of DC International Children’s Films, on May 8, the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, in conjunction with the British Council, presents movies from the United States and England. On May 9, the Goethe-Institut, with the Embassy of Senegal, shows movies from Germany and Senegal. On May 15, the Japan Information and Culture Center, along with the Spanish Embassy, screens movies from Japan and Spain. On May 16, the Alliance Française, joined by the Embassy of Burkina Faso, runs movies from France and Burkina Faso. (202) 686-5807, www.hillwoodmuseum.org/Calendar.html (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/kue/flm/enindex.htm (202) 238-6949, www.us.emb-japan.go.jp/jicc/events.htm (202) 234-7911, www.francedc.org/en/
Korean Film Festival The Korean Film Festival DC 2009 continues at the Freer Gallery of Art (through May 31) and the American Film Institute Silver Theatre (through May 3). (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/silver
Goethe-Institut Through May 18, the series “People in Cities: German, Chinese, and American Urban Scenes” screens in conjunction with the Chinatown-area poetry collaboration “Time Shadows.” (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/kue/flm/enindex.htm
About the Author
Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.