By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 26, 2013)
I say chatzilim, you say maqluba: Zaytoun
Human conflict is as old as, well, the human race…as Mel Brooks’ “2000 year-old man” once confirmed to interviewer Carl Reiner after being asked to recall the very first national anthem, singing “They can all go to hell…except Cave 76!“. After many millennium’s worth of mass destruction and horrible suffering, you’d think we would all have come to the logical conclusion that war, as Bertrand Russell once pointed out “…does not determine who is right, only who is left.”
However, “logic”, it would seem, is for wusses and has no place on the manly battlefield. But I can always dream, can’t I? As Carl Sagan observed, we are all made of the same “star stuff”, so why can’t we just get along? (and again, I’m being logical…so pardon my naiveté). A few filmmakers have explored that theme over the years, in parables like La Grande Illusion, Hell in the Pacific, Enemy Mine, and now in a new film called Zaytoun, from Israeli director Eran Riklis.
The backdrop is war-torn Beirut in 1982. A 12-year old boy named Fahed (Abdallah El Akal) lives in a Palestinian refugee sector on Beirut’s outskirts with his widower father and grandfather. Needless to say, life in 1982 Beirut isn’t easy for Fahed and his young friends. When they’re not at home nervously scanning the skies for Israeli jets that frequently swoop in on suspected PLO targets embedded in their neighborhood, they’re having guns waved in their faces and getting shooed away by their Lebanese “hosts” whenever they venture into the city, where they play fun games like daring each other to dash across sniper alleys. Not that they are strangers to guns; we observe them as they engage in mandatory PLO-sponsored combat training, as well as political indoctrination.
Fahed’s father spends his spare time doting reverently over a potted olive tree. He shows his son how to properly nurture this delicate heirloom; his dream is to one day replant it into the soil of the family’s home town across the border in Israel/Palestine (whichever one’s preference). If it sounds like foreshadowing, you would be correct. Fahed’s father is killed in the first act via Israeli air strike, stacking the deck with assurance that freshly-orphaned Fahed’s first face-to-face meeting with The Enemy is less than congenial. The object of his reflexive derision is an Israeli pilot named Yoni (Stephen Dorff), who has been captured by the PLO after bailing out nearby.
Fahed and his friends taunt the imprisoned Yoni, after the PLO has “softened him up” a bit in an attempt to gather intelligence. Yoni responds in kind, calling them “little terrorists”. Yoni makes an escape attempt, after which Fahed gratuitously shoots him in the leg while he is still locked in his cell; obviously, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It’s never made clear what prompts the PLO to leave their valuable prisoner (whom they intend to trade for Israeli-held Palestinian brethren) in the charge of 12-year olds, but Yoni soon convinces Fahed to help him escape by playing on the boy’s desire to visit his ancestral village so he can fulfill his late father’s dream. In strict adherence with Road Movie Rules, these mutually wary travel companions slowly Form A Special Bond.
If I sound like I’m mocking my own pacifist sentiments, it’s not that I disagree with The Message in Riklis’s film; it’s just that he and Palestinian-American screenwriter Nader Rizq have oversimplified their narrative, which is rife with cliché and topped off with a tear-jerking denouement right out of an Afterschool Special. For example, the situation in Beirut in 1982 was complex, what with the Lebanese civil war, the PLO cells and the Israeli military involvement. Most viewers would understand why there was no love lost between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but in one scene Fahed and his friends are called “Palestinian dogs” by the Lebanese soldiers (maybe police?). Why? Was this a sentiment shared by all Lebanese? One Palestinian character is noted to have been killed by a “Phalangist sniper”. Who were the Phalangists again…and what was their beef?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been raging since 1948, so what was the significance in informing us that this is “Beirut, 1982” but then offering no further exposition? Some historical context would have been helpful (as it is considered rude to do a Wiki search on your cell during a movie screening). Then again, maybe I’m looking on the wrong side of the lens. After all, if an Israeli director and a Palestinian writer can collaborate to create art, then maybe we can all get along (eventually). Perhaps in this case, the medium is the message.