Videovista have my review of Eran Riklis’s Zaytoun, an almost impossibly idealistic film about Arab-Israeli relations.
Set during the 1982 Lebanon war, Zaytoun tells of an Israeli fighter pilot who is shot down over a refugee camp. Locked up in a cell, the fighter pilot only frees himself by agreeing to help a Palestinian teenager to return to his family’s land in what is now Israel. Essentially a road movie, the two travelers make their way through a number of tricky encounters growing closer and closer to each other with each new mile. More symbolic vehicles than actual characters, the boy and the fighter pilot seem to represent the two sides of the conflict suggesting that if two fictional characters can make friends then surely the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships should also be able to make friends… yeah.
The real problem with Zaytoun is that while Riklis clearly made a deliberate choice to sacrifice depth of character in return for increased depth of symbolic representation, the fable he weaves around his generic archetypes is so trite and simple-minded that the audience is left with neither a decent set of characters nor a particularly good idea about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, strip away the pretty landscape photography, and the broadly comic secondary characters, and you are left with a film that suggests the Palestinian question could be solved if only both sides could be a little bit nicer to each other.
Another issue I raise in my review is the fact that recent years have seen a number of Israeli films that attempt to deal with the current state of Arab-Israeli relations by projecting the writer and director’s ideas back onto a vision of the 1982 Lebanon war. Aside from the obvious questions of historical accuracy and political cowardice raised by this trend, I am also struck by the fact that films like Zaytoun, Waltz with Bashir and Lebanon all treat the Palestinian and Lebanese as symbolic representations of Israel’s moral character: In Waltz with Bashir, the war of 1982 is treated as a sort of psychotic episode, in Lebanon the war was treated as a crucible of psychological hardship and, in Zaytoun, bopth the Palestinian people and the road to Palestine are treated as psychological stepping stones for an Israeli protagonist. The interesting thing about all of these films is that none of them treat the Palestinians as real people with an existence outside of their presence in the minds of Israeli characters. In fact, one is reminded of Chinua Achebe’s incendiary comments about the depiction of African people in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:
Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?
The most worrying thing about films like Zaytoun is that they suggest that contemporary middle-class Israelis are falling into the same trap as White Victorian novelists. Rather than treating Palestine as a complex place filled with real and complex people, they reduce it to the state of Universal Other… a place that wandering Israeli soldiers enter at their peril. Zaytoun is clearly an idealistic film but I think it is, in the words of Achebe, ‘bloody racist’.