A married couple are faced with a difficult decision - to improve the life of their child by moving to another country or to stay in Iran and look after a deteriorating parent who has Alzheimer's disease.
In New York City's Harlem circa 1987, an overweight, abused, illiterate teen who is pregnant with her second child is invited to enroll in an alternative school in hopes that her life can head in a new direction.
Salma Zidane, a widow, lives simply from her grove of lemon trees in the West Bank's occupied territory. The Israeli defense minister and his wife move next door; the Secret Service orders the trees removed for security. The stoic Salma seeks assistance from the Palestinian Authority (useless), Israeli army (dismissive), and a young attorney, Ziad Daud, who takes the case; this older client attracts him. While the courts deliberate, the Israelis fence her trees and prohibit her from entering the grove. As the trees wither, the defense minister's wife and, separately, an Israeli journalist, look on Salma with sympathy. In this allegory, does David stand a chance against Goliath? Written by
Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet, but the fruit de-da de-da?
At its heart, Lemon Tree has the simplistic Blue Peter logic of many a Middle-East Conflict Film. There might be bureaucracies, politics, religion and culture in the way, but if ordinary people could just talk to each . . .
The 'ordinary people' are also usually those disenfranchised in a cross-cultural way. In Bridge Over the Wadi, they were children. In Lemon Tree, it is women who pick up the, 'if only we could live together' banner.
Salma is a Palestinian widow. She has lived on the green line border between Israel and the West Bank for decades. She tends a lemon grove. Handed down to her through generations. She barely scrapes an existence from it, but it is her whole world.
On the opposite side, the Israeli Defense Minister moves into a big new house facing her lemon grove. The Israeli security forces declare the proximity of Salma's trees a security threat. They issue orders to uproot them. Salma engages Ziad Daud, a Palestinian lawyer. They go to the Israeli Supreme Court to try to save the trees.
Meanwhile, Mira Navon, the Defense Minister's wife, is trapped in her luxurious new home but pretty miserable. She feels increasingly sympathetic to Salma's plight. Hubby makes public expressions of concern, but says he cannot go against the recommendations of security forces.
As an interim measure, Salma is prevented from entering the grove. The trees start to shrivel. This disparity is highlighted when the Navons throw a lavish party, with 'authentic Egyptian food.' But realise that that the caterer hasn't brought lemons. It seems a minor matter to pick up a few lemons from the adjoining grove . . .
With films like this, it is always tempting to look for bias. Although it was part-funded by the Israeli Film Council that doesn't make it pro-Israeli in this case. It's based on a true stories but (as always) there will be claims that it is too 'pro-Palestinian' or 'pro-Israeli' in the telling. Director Eran Riklis was born in Jerusalem, raised in USA, Canada and Brasil, graduated from film school in England, and now lives in Tel Aviv. He claims his film is, "about solitude as it is reflected in the lives of two women."
One of the film's main contributions is to explain the impossible deadlock and how both sides are pretty powerless, given their institutions, to change much. The Israeli Supreme Court verdict, when it comes, is gut-wrenching. But Palestinian officialdom seems more worried about propriety than the widow's attempts to protect her property. It is all superficially civilised. Lemon Tree initially disappoints me for not being more hard-hitting on political themes. But given how the politics of both sides can be excruciatingly tedious, Riklis has made a wise choice in turning real life political drama into a simple human interest story. In that, it Lemon Tree achieves something of a microcosm for the disputes. But does the film make creative and constructive inroads, or is it simply a pleasant and aesthetic way of not coming to terms?
Most of the comments I hear about how remarkably even-handed it is have come from liberal Israeli commentators. And there is much truth in their view. But a gulf still exists. There are no end of projects (and movies) focussing on peace initiatives between the two sides. Palestinians are often unhappy that such projects ignore the inequalities between them and Israeli Jews. Or act as a conscience-salve for the Israelis. "Existence first, co-existence later", has became a common Palestinian slogan. Lemons are a major crop in the area. They need a lot of water. Just like Salma, banished from her own grove, the Palestinians do not control their own water supply. Just like Salma, in times of crisis, they may lack the means of survival. Palestinians seeing Lemon Tree may agree about its even-handedness. Yet, like Salma, leave a little less sanguine about the value of emotional empathy between the two women. Or so sympathetic to the understanding Mira. Yet in the festering political deadlock, films of such beauty are still better than nothing.
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