Lemon Tree movie poster.
Title: Lemon Tree
Director: Eran Riklis
Leads: Hiam Abbass, Ali Suliman, Doran Tovery and Rona Lipaz-Michael
Language: Arabic and Hebrew
Length: 106 minutes
“Trees are like people, they have souls, they have feelings. They need to be talked to, need tender loving care.” (Abu Hussam in Lemon Tree)
Set on the West Bank’s Green line, Lemon Tree, is a poignant film of one Palestinian woman’s fight to save her lemon grove from Israeli destruction. “It’s based on a few true stories that I encountered,” explains the film director Eran Riklis, “plus hundreds of thousands of stories that are similar, in sense of the Palestinian person trying to protect his house, his land, his trees.”
While the story of Palestinian struggle is not new, what is unique here is the film’s ability to portray tragedy without being melodramatic and to humanize the Palestinians without demonizing the Israelis. Rather, Lemon Tree highlights the ultimate brutalization of both the Palestinians and Israelis due to the tension and constant fear in which the two societies live.
The film follows the story of Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass), a Palestinian widow who makes a meager living from a lemon grove inherited from her father. Salma’s quiet and isolated existence is turned on its head when the Israeli Defense Minister and his wife move into the neighborhood.
The Minister’s officious security team quickly set up a watch-tower over the area but their fears over “Arab terrorists” is lurking in Salma’s lemon grove entailing its destruction which is soon ordered.
Salma avows to protect every remaining tree and with the help of local lawyer Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman), she takes her protest all the way to the Israeli High Court. Although Salma is determined to save her trees, which she continues to tend to even when forced out of the grove at gunpoint, her case looks hopeless, as one lawyer states, “Lemon trees and the Defense Minister, a lethal combination.”
|Hiam Abbas as Salma|
Communities in isolation; Communities in conflict
A turning point comes when Miri, the Defense Minister’s wife, publicly expresses sympathy for Salma’s plight. The case subsequently becomes headline news, even reaching Europe, where campaigners decide to take up Salma’s cause.
Despite the mounting tensions on either side, a mutual bond of respect and understanding develops between Miri and Salma. Their shared experience of isolation and growing detachment from friends and family, means that they are able to recognize each other’s loneliness, and understand the pain of separation.
In fact, this sense of isolation and division which exists not only between people, but also across entire communities, is Lemon Tree’s central theme.
The most obvious example of this division is between the two neighbors, who seem to live in entirely separate worlds, though they live on the same street. Despite the huge impact they have on each other’s life, the Defense Minister has threatened Salma’s livelihood, and she has taken him to court. They never actually sit down and talk to each other.
Even Salma and Miri, who clearly have sympathy for each other, barely exchange a word. This is a clear metaphor for the growing segregation between the Israelis and Palestinians and the increasingly isolated communities in which they live.
The “Apartheid Wall” which now separates Israel from the West Bank, as well as the existence of over 500 checkpoints and roadblocks which indiscriminately affect the Palestinians, make a positive interaction between Palestinians and Israelis absolutely difficult.
There is also a simmering conflict between the Defense Minister and his wife, who complains that they barely spend time together, and voices her suspicion that he is being unfaithful. Miri’s obvious sympathy for Salma, and the build-up of the media storm, places further strain on their relationship.
While Miri challenges the logic behind the destruction of Salma’s lemon grove, the Minister states that he is unwilling to challenge the Secret Services’ decision, which, he reminds her, has been made for their very safety.
This disagreement between the Israeli couple is a microcosm of the deep divisions within the Israeli society with regards to resolving the “Palestinian issue” and the future of the Israeli state.
It reflects the common dispute between certain Israelis who feel that everything must be done to keep Israel safe (even if that means that the Palestinians should suffer), and those who feel that the very notion that safety can be bought at the expense of others’ freedom are suspects.
Surprisingly, the film does manage to throw in some humor; be it dry and gut-wrenchingly ironic. In one scene, the Defense Minister decides to host a house-warming party for his Israeli guests, with Arabic music and traditionally Arabic food- all Kosher, naturally.
The irony is not lost to the viewer, especially when the chef also realizes that he has forgotten to bring lemons, and all the eyes turn to Salma’s orchard with bright fruit.
Palestinian Suffering and Hollywood Endings?
My only critique of Lemon Tree is that it fails to explore the systematic discrimination, and sometimes outright brutality, that Palestinians face on a daily basis. The recent war on Gaza, and the blockade which continues, illustrate the brutal force that Israel can launch against the Palestinian people.
The World Bank’s overview of the Palestinian economy also asserts that nearly half of all Palestinian families now live below the poverty line. The reason for this dramatic deterioration, is the “multi-faceted system of restrictions on the movement of Palestinian people and goods, which the Government of Israel argues essential to protect Israelis.” (World Bank, November 2004).
Palestinians also face an array of crippling bureaucratic regulations on everything, including planning applications for housing permits, citizenship, identity cards, and visas. These restrictions, whether subtle or spectacular, are simply not acknowledged in the film.
The recognition and media attention that Salma’s case receives also seems to be a little contrived and unrealistic in a country where house demolitions are widespread and serious human rights abuses occur without reprisal.
However, I still understand why Riklis – director of the critically acclaimed film, Syrian Bride, decided to use a story which was subtle and unspectacular. This means that there are no clear “good” and “bad” guys to simplify the story and we can not dismiss one person’s concern at the expense of another’s.
To put it quite plainly, it is more representative of the real conflict and the more commonplace struggles that we just do not hear of in the news. Even the final decision by the Israeli High court seems ambiguous, it is not going to save all Salma’s trees, but it is no happy ending. As we are reminded by Salma’s lawyer, happy endings are possible only in Hollywood.
Prison Walls and Finding Freedom
Although it might have been easier to portray this story as a battle of David and Goliath, the reality is that in the end they both sacrifice something dear to themselves. Salma loses some of her trees although she seems to gain more determination, confidence and even strength through her struggle. However, what the Defense Minister loses is much more significant; not only his wife who leaves him in the end, but also his freedom.
Israel may be building walls to keep the “Palestinian threat”out, but it has also built its very own prison, and thereby is holding its citizens captive. The ending illustrates this without any ambiguity.
In the closing sequence, the Defense Minister sits silently smoking; watching as the curtains are drawn away from his window, instead of Salma’s lemon grove, all he sees is cold solid wall.
Lemon Tree, which won the Audience Award at the Berlin Film Festival, is a beautifully made film, perfected by a formidable cast. Hiam Abbass, who plays Salma, brings an elegant dignity to her role, and helps this drama seamlessly combine the political with the personal.
Ali Suliman, who some may recognize from the Oscar-nominated Paradise Now, as well as Doran Tovery (Defense Minister) and Rona Lipaz-Michael (Miri), also gives strong performances which keep the story engaging.
That Riklis managed to create such a balanced and honest exploration of the conflict in Palestine/Israel, is a magnificent achievement, and on that note alone, Lemon Tree is a must see.