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Lemon Tree – Etz Limon: Palestine/Israel – allegory and metaphor

Salma and Ziad

Salma and Ziad

Lemon Tree – Eran Riklis

At the very heart of this quiet, dignified film is a performance by Israeli-Arab Hiam Abbass of such power and stillness that it not only draws us into the pain and mental anguish of poor Palestinian widow Salma Zidane, but also resonates with the ancient Israeli/Palestinian conflict for which Salma’s plight is both metaphor and allegory. If the Oscars truly represent recognition of the best screen acting of any year, then a nomination at least for this spellbinding acting achievement should be automatic. There is no ‘actress’ here to see – only her character Salma Zidane. This is screen-acting of the highest order.

Set on the Green Line that marked Israel’s pre-1967 war, de facto ‘border’ with Palestine, post-war Israeli annexation of the West Bank has left Salma’s small lemon grove on land now under Israeli military control. Her only source of a meagre income, this lemon grove was planted in happier times by her father and all her life, since first helping him to nurture the trees, she has continued to tend them with devotion; first with her now deceased, arranged marriage husband, and now aided only by elderly life-long family retainer Abu Hussam.

When the ambitious new Israeli Defence Minister Israel Navon decides to return to the area of his childhood with his beautiful wife Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), his new house is built on the ‘Israeli’ side of the Green Line, a few yards away from the lemon grove. A large luxurious house, with all the trappings of modern security, including God help us an observation tower manned 24 hours a day, suddenly materialises on the very edge of Salma’s lemon grove.

The secret service decide the grove is a security risk offering dissident Palestinians cover from which to observe or attack ‘Israel’s’ new home. A military edict is issued therefore first to fence the grove, ban Salma from entering, then leading to an order to uproot the whole grove. Though the terms of the military occupation of the West Bank supposedly impose no legal responsibility upon the Israelis to offer Salma compensation, they still do so and cannot understand why she resists these imposed changes that have overnight threatened to destroy everything her life has been about.

Salma first seeks help from local Palestinian leader Abu Kamal (Makram Khoury). In an evocative scene, she seeks Kamal out in an exclusively male café where the moment she enters all conversation stops and every man stares disapprovingly at her. Kamal is dismissive – how can she be pre-occupied with a few lemon trees when so many greater injustices are being inflicted on Palestinians by Israel? His parting shot is that “we do not accept their money.”

In desperation Salma enlists the help of a young lawyer Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman) newly arrived from Russia. Sceptical at first, Ziad is gradually caught up in Salma’s implacable determination and courage to fight through the courts for her right to the only way of life she has ever known, on a tiny piece of land that is all she has ever owned. Sharing such a daunting battle together, the young lawyer and the striking, indeed beautiful woman in her early 40’s, are drawn to one another and after visiting her and being caught by the curfew one night, Ziad stays over. Though dismissive of her battle against injustice, Abu Kamal still makes a personal visit to warn Salma that such improper behaviour cannot be tolerated and must stop.

Throughout defying the exclusion order, Salma climbs over the fence and tries to continue to tend the lemon trees. Mira Navon witnesses her being ejected by the army and begins to take an interest in the plight of the Palestinian woman taking her husband to Israel’s Supreme Court. Short of outright defiance, Mira tries to get her husband to over-ride the order which he personally is not convinced is necessary. He refuses, more for political expediency than moral reasons.

Several wordless meetings between Mira and Salma across the actual and symbolic fence-line between them, beautifully capture a sense of two people with an instinctive sense of empathy as women, each trapped in their respective and warring cultures and political attitudes, carried along by impersonal forces neither can withstand. When at her house-warming party Mira’s guests raid Salma’s grove for lemons, she watches horrified at Salma’s rage and indignation at the little she owns in the world being simply stolen as a matter of minor convenience.

The resolution to the complex, deeply layered conflicts represented here by the Lemon Tree is, as you might expect unsatisfactory – to either party. Mira and Israel pay a penalty, as does Salma. No one wins when might is used because it exists, not because it is right – perhaps one of the oldest of human moral dilemmas. Individual human beings are carried along helplessly by a tide of hate and distrust-driven political, social, moral and cultural attitudes that sacrifice the very values they exist perpetuate.

This deceptively simple little film, sensitively directed and co-written by Israeli Eran Riklis is confidently and subtly layered, with issues allowed to emerge and resonate rather than be discussed and debated. In one deeply moving, beautifully written scene, the old Abu Hussam stands before the full panoply of the Israeli Supreme Court and speaks with poignant simplicity of what it means year in, year out, to cherish and tend the lemon trees that reward that effort with the gift of fruit, of life. In offering a compensatory price for the loss of this the Court demonstrates blindness to its true value.

This is a highly accomplished film; serious, yes sad, but not depressing. It represents an ancient conflict through the lives of individual people with an emotional power that tragically, the endless horrors and body-count statistics of the news increasingly fail to do.

If there is even a slither of hope implied, not stated in the film, then I think it lies within the hearts and minds of women. The empathy between Mira and Salma as women is palpable – each in their very different ways trapped within a male-dominated world both in power and attitude. If Mira possesses freedoms of personal action denied culturally to Salma, the boundary to freedom of action is still for both women, jealously guarded by men.

If this one comes your way – don’t miss it; if it doesn’t then see it on DVD. Art cannot change politics: but it can bring to the surface truths we all recognise and know somewhere deep inside – and then at least inaction becomes a failure to meet the challenge of taking the risk of choosing life over violence and death. What happens to Salma is just wrong. And we all know it – including Israel.

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