Why fel­low Is­raelis hated my hit film

has had global suc­cess with his film The Lemon Tree, but it has proved less than pop­u­lar at home. asks him why

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis -

Ear­lier this year in is­rael, a great deal of hype ac­com­pa­nied the cin­ema release of The Lemon Tree, the lat­est film from writer/di­rec­tor eran rik­lis. af­ter the suc­cess of The Syr­ian Bride (2004), a film about a Druze woman who has to leave is­rael and her fam­ily in the Golan heights, for­ever, in or­der to marry a man across the bor­der in syria, crit­ics and audiences alike were ea­ger to see what rik­lis had to say next about the po­lit­i­cal sta­tus quo in is­rael.

that ea­ger­ness waned when word spread that The Lemon Tree told the story of salma, a Pales­tinian widow liv­ing on the Green line be­tween the West Bank and is­rael, whose pre­cious lemon trees come un­der threat when se­cu­rity forces work­ing for her new neigh­bour, the is­raeli De­fence Min­is­ter, deem the or­chard a se­cu­rity haz­ard.

For­tunes then re­versed in Fe­bru­ary, when The Lemon Tree scooped the pres­ti­gious Panorama au­di­ence award at the Berlin in­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. Once again rik­lis found him­self fronting the is­raeli film of the mo­ment.

“Berlin cre­ated a huge hype here,” says 54-yearold di­rec­tor, speak­ing from his home in tel aviv. “We re­leased the film pretty soon af­ter that and it to­tally failed at cin­e­mas. it was a dis­as­ter. it was very strange.”

hav­ing watched the film go on to be­come a suc­cess in many other coun­tries, rik­lis has had time to an­a­lyse the luke­warm re­ac­tion at home.

“the ba­sic truth which maybe we were blinded from see­ing is that in the end, we pre­sented an is­raeli au­di­ence with a film for which the ba­sic synopsis is this: a Pales­tinian woman goes to court against the is­raeli Min­is­ter of De­fence. that sounds kind of threat­en­ing. Peo­ple start think­ing: ‘OK, some­body’s try­ing to say some­thing about our se­cu­rity forces, our de­fence min­is­ter, and it’s a Pales­tinian woman. What right does she have to go to court?’ it brings out a lot of, i don’t want to say demons, but touchy and sen­si­tive feel­ings.”

Does he re­ally think the film flopped be­cause is­raelis ran from the idea of a Pales­tinian heroine? “i think the au­di­ence sim­ply said: ‘this must be pro-Pales­tinian, anti-is­raeli, i don’t want to see it.’ and even though we did a very so­phis­ti­cated cam­paign and tried to re­ally hide th­ese el­e­ments and bring for­ward the story of two women across the bor­der, the fact is we didn’t suc­ceed.”

the film is loosely based on a true story which rik­lis read on the in­ter­net while fin­ish­ing The Syr­ian Bride. at the time, he was al­ready think­ing of mak­ing a film about the is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict and hop­ing to work again with Pales­tinian ac­tress hiam ab­bass, who shone in his pre­vi­ous film.

“in The Syr­ian Bride, i said most of what i wanted to say about the Mid­dle east but i still had an urge to go fur­ther and into more danger­ous ter­ri­to­ries in terms of, let’s deal with the real thing — the Pales­tini­ans. and when i saw the story on the in­ter­net, i said to my­self, the in­gre­di­ents are there. and once i knew hiam (ab­bass) was go­ing to play the Pales­tinian woman, salma, it made my life eas­ier, in terms of, i knew i had good am­mu­ni­tion.”

From there, rik­lis be­gan sketch­ing a story. “When i wrote the first synopsis, i wrote, this is a Mid­dle east­ern Erin Brokovich. a lot of peo­ple iden­ti­fied with that.”

he then co-wrote the screen­play with 39-year-old fe­male Pales­tinian writer suha ar­raf, with whom he also co-wrote The Syr­ian Bride. ar­raf gave salma’s char­ac­ter an au­then­tic voice. “We worked to bring salma’s char­ac­ter out of the stereo­type and that’s the Erin Brokovich el­e­ment. salma is not yet an­other poor Pales­tinian woman who knows noth­ing, she’s much more rounded than that.”

rik­lis sees noth­ing re­mark­able about an is­raeli col­lab­o­rat­ing with two Pales­tinian women. “My lead­ing ac­tress is Pales­tinian, my co-writer’s Pales­tinian, but so what? it’s not like i de­serve a medal. On the other hand, i’m aware that from an is­raeli per­spec­tive, it’s quite rare to have this easy-go­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion. But this is not a case of: ‘hey lis­ten, some of my best friends are arabs.’”

rik­lis at­tributes his tal­ent for shrewdly ob­serv­ing life in is­rael and on its bor­ders to a life of­ten lived out­side of the coun­try. he was born on Oc­to­ber 2 1954 in Jerusalem. his fa­ther was a “bo­hemian sci­en­tist” of rus­sian lin­eage and his mother a singer and mu­si­cian of aus­trian de­scent. the fam­ily globe-trot­ted through­out rik­lis’s child­hood. he grew up in Canada, the United states, is­rael and Brazil.

“My fa­ther was a pro­fes­sor of bio­chem­istry and ra­dio­bi­ol­ogy. he worked in the atomic cen­tre in the south of is­rael which of­fi­cially never ex­isted and where pre­sum­ably all the bombs are hid­den.”

rik­lis stud­ied film­mak­ing at tel aviv Uni­ver­sity and the Na­tional Film school in the UK. he set out his po­lit­i­cal agenda for film­mak­ing with his grad­u­a­tion film, On A Clear Day You Can See Da­m­as­cus (1984). he moved into di­rect­ing com­mer­cials and work­ing in tele­vi­sion, be­fore mak­ing his de­but fea­ture, Cup Fi­nal (1991), a then fresh take on the is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict.

Next came Zo­har (1993), a drama based on the life of singer Zo­har ar­gov; the ac­claimed doc­u­men­tary Bor­ders (1999); rock ’n’ roll drama Vol­cano Junc­tion (1999) and ro­man­tic drama Temp­ta­tion (2002). then, in 2004, pol­i­tics back to the fore, The Syr­ian Bride be- came a huge in­ter­na­tional suc­cess. he sees The Lemon Tree as a fur­ther­ing of is­sues raised in that film.

“it’s again peo­ple trapped in a po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. it’s not a film mak­ing a harsh po­lit­i­cal state­ment. i don’t be­lieve in that.”

De­spite this, he ad­mits it has been mis­in­ter­preted as such in is­rael. “there’s a big gap be­tween the way the film was re­ceived in is­rael and the way it’s been re­ceived in al­most ev­ery other ter­ri­tory in the world. it’s hit it big world­wide but not in is­rael, which per­son­ally is a pity. i re­gret it, be­cause it’s my home court.”

to­day, rik­lis lives a sec­u­lar life in tel aviv with his film­maker wife, Dina Zvi-rik­lis. their son, Jonathan, is a jazz pi­anist in New York and their daugh­ter, tammy, is an ed­i­tor for Ha’aretz. De­spite his po­lit­i­cal views, he con­sid­ers him­self in­tensely con­nected to is­rael and sup­ported him­self through­out film school work­ing as a se­cu­rity of­fi­cer for el al. he sees The Lemon Tree as above all a call for un­der­stand­ing.

“the head­lines we all know; let’s go be­yond that and see who th­ese peo­ple re­ally are. The Lemon Tree of course emo­tion­ally sup­ports salma’s strug­gle, but nev­er­the­less looks at the de­fence min­is­ter, who is also a hu­man be­ing.”

rik­lis hopes the film will speak to any­one who has chal­lenged an un­just sit­u­a­tion or lived through a pe­riod of con­flict.

“i was in in­dia at a fes­ti­val, and at the Q&a a Pales­tinian woman stood up and said: ‘i am Pales­tinian, i come from Pales­tine and i want to say to Mr rik­lis that this is a won­der­ful film, it deals in a fair way with our trou­bles and also your trou­bles, is­raeli trou­bles.’ to me, that sit­u­a­tion un­der­lines that peo­ple should go be­yond ask­ing: ‘is this film pro or against us?’

“i don’t make films for any­one, for Pales­tini­ans, for is­raelis. i make films for a global au­di­ence.” The Lemon Tree opens the UK Jewish Film Fes­ti­val on Novem­ber 8 be­fore go­ing on gen­eral release from De­cem­ber 12. For in­for­ma­tion about the fes­ti­val visit www.uk­jew­ish­film­fes­ti­val.org.uk

Pales­tinian ac­tress Hiam Ab­bass, whose char­ac­ter in The Lemon Tree fights the Is­raeli De­fence Min­istry to save her or­chard from de­struc­tion

Eran Rik­lis: Is­raelis re­jected his film

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