LEMON TREE (Eran Riklis, 2008)

Patient, tenacious, engrossing, quietly devastating, the Israeli film Etz halimon—in Arabic, Shajarat limon—is enormously effective propaganda targeting by dint of metaphor Israel’s Wall of Separation, which, surrounding the West Bank and Gaza, has drawn criticism for bounding beyond Israel’s security needs by ghettoizing Palestinians in an effort that some believe seeks to strangle Palestinian livelihood and lives. According to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the pitilessly daunting solid fence, “which does not respect the ‘Green Line’ of 1967,” “cuts through parts of the West Bank, separating about 95,000 Palestinians residing in 27 towns and villages from the remaining West Bank,” and “enclosing an estimated 7 per cent of Palestinian land, including fertile agricultural land [and] water resources.” Dubbed by its opponents as an “apartheid wall,” “it is the case of the facto annexation in which the security situation is employed as a pretext for territorial expansion.” On the other hand, after decades of complaints that Israeli security measures have been dubious because ineffective, this separation wall has demonstrably saved civilian Israeli lives.
     Eran Riklis has (with Suha Arraf) co-written and directed the film beautifully. Its protagonist, Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass, magnificent—best actress, Israeli Film Academy), is a widow who depends on her lemon grove for (despite her implicitly routine long-distance phone calls to a son in the U.S.) her meager livelihood. A legacy from her late father, the lemon grove is also attached to her heart and sense of cultural continuity. There, on the Green Line between the former Israeli border and the annexed West Bank, the new Israeli defense minister, Israel Navon, has moved into a heavily guarded mansion. The lemon trees, whose cloak of trunks and foliage endangers the minister and his wife, must be uprooted, but, with her young Palestinian attorney (Ali Suliman, excellent), Salma fights against this order all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. Despite a compromise ruling, the closing overhead, wide-angle shot shows Salma alone in a completely razed grove. The power of this image is overwhelming, as is that of the earlier wide-angle shot of the Wall of Separation.
     Riklis endows the film with two exceptionally interesting aspects. One is the sympathy that the defense minister’s wife extends to Salma, jeopardizing her marriage and (in an allegorical touch) the political future of Israel, her spouse. (Get it?) The other is the degree to which Salma’s humanity is discounted by fellow Palestinians, including her attorney, who exploit her for the sake of the larger cause. This is not a stupid or one-sided film.
     Nevertheless, the central metaphor is silly, giving the film the inadvertently comical distinction of showing more glasses of lemonade being drunk than any other film in creation. One must constantly remind oneself what the film is really about, for Salma’s lemon tree-complaints often seem like much kvetching about very little. To assist us in this regard—and, I’m afraid, quite ridiculously—Riklis and his cinematographer have bathed much of the film in a lemony glow. One can be forgiven for quipping that Riklis’s film is very bad for tooth enamel.

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