December 21, 2008

Etz Limon

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has consumed lives and energies throughout the Middle East: whatever your opinions of the roots of that conflict, its persistance has been a tragedy running through the politics of both sides for far too long. The Lemon Tree deals with that conflict from the perspective of one Palestinian woman and her friends and an Israeli family. The story is pretty basic. The Israeli Minister of Defence has moved into a new house just beside the West Bank/Israeli border: the house borders on the farm of a middle aged Palestinian widow (Salma) who makes her livelihood from her lemons. Shin Bet believes that the lemon grove might represent a security threat to the minister- a militant concealed in the trees might be able to approach and attack his house. The Minister orders therefore that the grove be cut down- the widow, distressed, consults a lawyer and takes the case to the courts, attempting to override the order. The resulting drama both in the case and for the characters takes over the rest of the film.

There are a number of interesting themes here that are worth mentioning. One is something that I have to admit I barely understand- the attachment of farmers to a particular piece of land and to their crops. Trees are twice referred to as semi-human: once by the minister recalling what his farmer father told him, once by the Salma's friend and co-worker to the court considering the case. Salma is offered compensation, but for her as a flashback establishes, the point is the emotional connection that she has with the land. That connection, the implication goes, is almost what has replaced her fled family and dead husband. Her poverty and loneliness are bearable because she has the trees that her father taught her to pick and prune- those trees sustain a pride based on rural cultivation, a pride and self respect that is purely admirable.

Another theme running through the story is the sexism implicit on both sides of the divide. It is strongly implied that the minister is having an affair with a pretty young receptionist, neglecting his wife. His wife emerges as a central character- able to sympathise with Salma but unable to do anything about it: her concerns are dismissed by her officious husband and her one intervention in the plot seals her own alienation from her husband. The sexism is evident on the other side too- and is much much worse. Salma is oppressed by a regional authoritarian traditional male hierarchy, who refuse to let her see her lawyer (who she slowly falls in love with) and rebukes her for allowing her son to work in America. The under current of oppression is constant and Salma's bravery is possibly in confronting her own side of the divide as much as it is in confronting the lawyers she faces in the court. Her own love story with the lawyer illustrates the limits for a woman in Palestinian society.

Lastly of course there is the occupation itself- which is if you like the texture around which the story develops. The Minister's name, Israel, is not an accident. But in general I found this part of the plot dealt with pretty reasonably. The Minister is portrayed as sensible- if you were told that there was a potential threat to your life by the secret service, you might be willing to cut down some lemon trees. The soldiers are portrayed as even more sympathetic- we see a soldier standing on a look out post, but rather than being a sinister presence, he is a comic one- we get bursts from the audio course he is taking, whilst on boring sentry duty, and he comes across as a nice guy. That's true of the secret service men too- they occasionally seem officious but not brutal. As this is a story about Palestinian dispossession- the Palestinian angle is well covered too, indeed the lawyer who is close to the PLO seems fair and willing to take the case pro bono. Good people occasionally break each other's hearts through a bad situation seems to be the message of this film about the conflict- but it cannot deal with any of the deeper roots, the issues that fill the news broadcasts. It is ultimately too simple a story to say anything much about the politics of the region.

As a film, it acheives what it wants to do. I liked two of the performances in particular. Hiam Abbass is wonderful as Salma- she conveys the pride and self respect she feels brilliantly. She does things with a glance, a look away, that could make her a silent film star- she doesn't need speech to convey her emotions. Rona Lipaz-Michael is stunningly beautiful as the minister's wife (something that renders the affair implausible) but she too does a very good job- conveying her difficult role, her inchoate suspisions and her sympathy both with Israel and Salma, with perfect economy. Occasionally there are false notes- but overall the standard of the film is good- the false notes mainly come in the cloying relationship between Salma and the lawyer. In the final analysis though, this film is a simple story with a couple of interesting messages- mostly about the societies that find themselves in this conflict rather than the conflict- and those messages are delivered in an entertaining way.

Cineastes and students of politics might rebuke the film's simplicity: I'd advise you relax, sit back and enjoy it.


Georg said...

Hallo Gracchy,

The basics and the origins of this conflict are easy to understand.

A group of people settle somewhere, get numerous, create a state and throw the others out.

Some wars later, they conquer some more land and try to repeat the stunt that worked so well the first time: settle in the new land and throw the others out.

The others don't like it, trouble arouses and does not abate.


Gracchi said...

Possibly- I'm not sure that there aren't other 'simple' ways of seeing the conflict. That's the problem- the simple stories that everyone can repeat- there are simple Arabic and Jewish stories. The problem is that they contradict.

But I don't think the interesting thing in the film is really its treatment of those stories. The interesting thing to me was the relationship between the characters on either side. In a sense, this is a film about feminism rather than a film about the conflict- or at least it is more powerful as the latter than as the former.

Anonymous said...

its such a great movie.its not boring.i enjoy a lot while i am watching it.after i watched the movie i thought that mira and her daughter have a great communication because of internet on the other side its not possible to make a communication between selma and her son.its an interasting shows all the truths i think.