It’s 1982, deep into the Lebanese Civil War, and tensions are running high in the country. Beirut is in rubbles, a dusty war zone of wafting smoke, ringed with barbed wire and pitiless snipers, its buildings pocked by bullet holes; young men on motorbikes hold RPGs as they zip past burned-out husks of cars. This is the hostile setting conjured in the early scenes of Zaytoun—a film by director Eran Riklis and first-time screenwriter Nader Rizq that explores a budding friendship between an Israeli pilot downed behind enemy lines and the spirited Palestinian boy who warily agrees to help him.
Despite the desperate conditions in the city, life must go on, and Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), a free-spirited scamp from the Shatila refugee camp, navigates the urban chaos with street sense and swagger. A lively, fearless kid who disdains authority, he roams the city with his pals, skipping school and trying to skirt the PLO militants who force the youth into combat training exercises. When these militants capture an Israeli pilot (Stephen Dorff), Fahed eagerly assumes guard duty.
At first Fahed cruelly taunts the pilot, but when the man offers a tempting reward in exchange for his freedom, Fahed—beset by personal tragedy and seeing an opportunity to fulfill an otherwise impossible dream—agrees. As they leave the city, the film briefly veers into an escape thriller before settling into a multigenerational road-trip. The story enters a kind of idyllic netherworld hovering mostly above the fray as the two travel through the countryside. The camera dwells on the landscape as they pass towns, the coast, mountains, factories, and hillside villages; the beauty of the country provides an ironic contrast to the bloody battle to control it.
As Fahed and the pilot wend their way south, the icy distrust between them thaws. It’s replaced at first by a wary, tentative respect, and later by tenderness and an almost filial care. The roadblocks that the filmmakers throw in their path sometimes seem forced, but they are used to deepen the relationship in a way that feels natural and attuned to the bond that can develop between two people in dire straits who must rely upon each other.
Riklis excels in intimate settings where he can closely track his characters as they discover the world—and people—around them, as in Lemon Tree (08) and The Human Resources Manager (10). In Zaytoun, his two protagonists bond over the land by traveling and facing down threats, dodging bullets, and leaping over inhumane bureaucratic hurdles. As the two rove through the hills and valleys in a stolen Jeep, they’re part Bonnie and Clyde bandits, part Thelma and Louise social rebels, an odd couple weaving through the byways of an untamed Middle East.
Dorff’s IAF pilot is bristly, forceful, and disciplined, a straightforward uncomplicated everyman. The film’s energy and life instead emanate from Fahed, who is captivating. He is a smart, resourceful badass of a boy who faces the threat of death without breaking a sweat, and Abdallah El Akal plays the role with verve and a dash of vulnerability. Sporting aviators, packing heat, smoking and swilling arak, El Akal can flash a look of utter contempt that shifts suddenly into the grimace of a wounded child.
Riklis probes the contested borders—physical, historical, personal—of Israelis and Palestinians in his films. He approaches these issues tangentially through stories of basically honest, good people on both sides navigating through the absurd, cruel situations thrust on them by unfeeling larger forces. In The Syrian Bride (04), the bureaucratic obstacles facing a Druze wedding in the Golan Heights reveal how political conditions impose crushing burdens on family life. Lemon Tree focuses sharply on land and security issues, showing how identity and memory are bound to the earth, and the ways that military might and the force of law can devastate even the victors. A similar sensibility is apparent in Zaytoun: hatred, conflict, and injustice are not the fault of actual people behaving badly, but the byproducts of deeper structural forces at play.
Riklis typically avoids demonizing characters in his films, but here he comes close in his portrayal of some figures in the Beirut segment. Nonetheless, Zaytoun is relatively successful in tiptoeing through the political minefield of the subject matter, and it offers out the promise of hope and possibility without raising expectations. As with other Riklis films, individual people cannot change the world, but they might clear a little extra wiggle room. But can even this meager bit of optimism survive the pressures of the region? Shortly after the timeline of the film ends, the Sabra and Shatila massacre occurred. One wonders what is lost by stopping short of these events in a film that strives to honestly engage with issues of land and memory.