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Eran Riklis, director of Lemon Tree

Eran Riklis

Interview with the director of Lemon Tree

May 01, 2009 Eran Riklis Bookmark and Share

While discussing his film Lemon Tree, Israeli director Eran Riklis repeatedly begins sentences with the phrase, “On the one hand….” The words are indicative of Riklis’ evenhanded approach to Lemon Tree, a reflective and touching film that addresses the enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a microcosmic modern tale. In the film, a lemon grove belonging to a 45-year-old Palestinian widow (Hiam Abbass) is declared a threat to the safety of the Israeli Defense Minister (Doron Tavory) when he moves into a new house opposite her, on the border between Israel and the West Bank. Salma, the widow whose deceased father planted the lemon trees over 50 years ago, has no intention of relinquishing the grove, even though Israeli security forces have ordered for the trees to be uprooted. A soldier’s watchtower is set up in the grove, but she continues to tend to her trees. Mira, the Defense Minister’s wife, empathizes with Salma’s stance, which escalates when Salma refuses monetary compensation and hires a lawyer who takes her case to Israel’s Supreme Court.

The story for Lemon Tree partly was inspired by multiple accounts of Palestinians going to court against the state of Israel, which Riklis discovered while contemplating a follow-up to his previous film, 2004’s internationally acclaimed The Syrian Bride. Riklis and Palestinian actress Abbas worked together on The Syrian Bride, and the director knew, before Lemon Tree was written, that he wanted another opportunity to direct her. Abbas, who has a small role in Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, was honored by the Israeli Film Academy as Best Actress of 2008 for her performance in Lemon Tree.

I spoke with Eran Riklis by phone in mid-April, days before Lemon Tree’s New York release.

Did you a have a preconception of Lemon Tree’s tone before the screenplay was written, or did the tone evolve during the writing?

On one hand, when I wrote just the words “lemon tree,” and I recalled the old American song “Lemon Tree,” I thought that was my initial tone, which was really about sweet and sour, fresh and bitter. I felt that’s where I’m headed. But when I started writing it, I felt anger because I was writing at a time when, yet again, the Israelis and the Palestinians were clashing in Gaza. And then, halfway through the writing, I realized you can’t write in anger. So I went back to the original concept, and I think I kept that semi-optimistic feeling all the way through the shoot and certainly through the editing. So, it kind of shifted, but the original concept was really a fresh but bittersweet look at the whole situation.

What did you want the photograph Salma’s husband to convey?

I think it’s an everlasting presence of her past. It’s almost like he’s there on the wall preventing her from creating a new life for herself, and almost blaming her for being alive, in a way. [laughs] It’s part of the things she has to struggle with. If she can get away from him, she may have a new life and forget about the lemons and forget about the court struggle; it’s more about her finding a new love possibly. The lawyer presents an option, at least, even though it’s a controversial option from her point of view. So I think it’s this kind of presence that is there to both warn her and give her a guilt feeling, in terms of her existence, and it’s part of her struggle to break away from that.

Did you cast an actor and shoot that photo?

Yeah, it’s actually one of the guys I had on The Syrian Bride, and I just remembered his face. I called him and said, “Listen, I need you to be a photo on the wall. Is that OK? And you’re dead.” [laughs] Which he did, happily. It was funny, because when I brought the photo in, Hiam saw it, she hated it. And I said, “OK, great. You’re supposed to hate him. So it’s fine.” [laughs]

How did you arrive at a lemon tree for a motif?

When you think about trees and the Middle East, you think about olive trees. But when I thought about olive trees, I said to myself, “Oh no, not again.” ’Cause it’s over-symbolic and a bit overused. There are so many variations, and you also see them on the news, always in the context of whether someone’s reaching out for peace or there are trees being cut somewhere. Once I thought about an alternative, I thought about citrus. Oranges are also a little bit too obvious in an Israeli context. And lemons, in a way, represent everything that I wanted, like I said before, this kind of bittersweet feeling about the whole situation and about the film, and then the song came in, and I felt natural about it all. It was really an intuitive decision, which I still believe was a good one.

Female characters are central to this film, and there are repeated shots of Mira staring into the lemon grove. Do you think that Mira’s inclination to see the other side is representative of a female perspective, or is it more specific to her character?

It’s neither, because it’s probably representative of a certain people, whether they’re men or women, who are curious, who are at the stage in their life when they’re possibly not satisfied with what they have, and they need some kind of trigger to actually start a self-exploration process. I think what happens to Mira, which could happen to anyone in this situation, is, through the reflection of Salma, she begins to look at her own life and reach some conclusions. After being married 25 years to this guy, who’s now the Defense Minister, maybe she has to look at him and see if she’s happy in her life and going where she really wants to go. And in a curious way, this story of the lemon grove next to her opens her eyes in so many ways. So, I think it’s not about representing— although I guess she does represent, in a Middle Eastern context, the Israeli who’s been living in denial over the fact that there’s trouble next to his door. Maybe he has to look into it and see if he can do something to change it.

Throughout the film, the soldier in the tower is taking a test. Why did you choose to see this through?

He’s us, basically. He’s the audience looking at this story, minding his own business on one hand, on the other hand curious to know what’s happening just underneath him. I think he’s kind of the good-hearted, optimistic view of it all. And yet, he’s only there momentarily; he leaves the tower. So, for me, it was almost against expectation, because when they put that tower there, and you think there’s gonna be Israeli soldiers there, I guess the stereotype is that you expect some tough soldiers to be there, really being mean about what’s going on underneath. Yet, there’s this kid, who’s almost like an alternative kid for Salma. He’s kind of a relaxing factor, I guess, in a very intense situation. So I kind of liked that, within all these military types and security types running around the grove, there’s one guy who’s really just a kid observing the situation and trying to solve very rational questions in his test while witnessing a very irrational situation just in front of his eyes.

So the test is meant as a kind of text in the film?

Well, yes and no. I chose it very carefully, but I chose it in a silly way. There are strange questions that have to do with logic, which I found at times funny, but whether they’re a comment on what’s going on or not, it’s difficult to say. It’s in the eyes of the beholder, in a way.

After Salma’s dream, there are shots of construction work being done. Is that the construction of a segregation wall? And what area is this?

Yes, near Jerusalem. In theory, the wall is supposed to be all around the West Bank. Like every big construction effort, it’s delayed, it’s running into trouble, it’s always behind schedule, so, at the moment, you only really see the wall in Jerusalem and near the center of the West Bank, opposite Israel’s center, and north of the West Bank.

Was it intentional to insert these shots immediately after the dream for contrast?

Yeah, I think dreams are dreams and reality is reality, and I think it was always important to bring the film back to the ground.

Movie audiences generally identify with underdog characters. Because of this, was there a risk of alienating Israeli audience members in making your Palestinian characters so sympathetic?

Even if I felt that, I felt that the fact that it was performed by Hiam compensated for any potential in that direction, because really she’s the kind of actress who overcomes any kind of resistance. You can’t take your eyes off her. I think you feel for her from the very first moment you see her. If there’s something in the character that could have gone in that direction, then really the casting compensates for it all the time.

When you’ve screened your film at festivals throughout the world, have you encountered common questions or misconceptions about Israeli and Palestinian culture?

One of the most surprising things for me, personally and also objectively, ’cause I’ve shown the film not only at festivals, it was released essentially worldwide— There’s always this fear of, “OK, what will this person in Brazil or Taiwan or Spain understand about this whole situation?” And the fact is, I’ve never even once encountered an issue about that, because I think the human side of the story and the characters overcome any misconception, or misunderstanding, or misinformation about the actual situation. And also, I feel that people are relatively well informed these days because of the Internet, because they see a lot of films. Of course, we’re not talking about a wide release of thousands of prints, we’re talking about art house movies, which, from the beginning, I think the audience that reaches it is quite well informed. So, no, I was always surprised. You sit with a Chinese audience, and it’s amazing that their questions are so perceptive and so meaningful, because they really understand the basic human conflict and understand the basic situation, which is a struggle over land and a struggle over protecting yourself from a system that’s trying to take something away from you. So, in that sense, it’s a very classic and basic situation, which is very accessible.


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