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    The Lemon Tree

    Tree of strife

    "The Lemon Tree" is a slightly abstract but symbolically meaningful Israeli film dramatizing the human effects of the literal and figurative wall between Israelis and Palestinians.


    Maybe the famous line from Robert Frost got it backwards. Maybe good fences don't make good neighbors. It is, more likely, good neighbors who make good fences.

    Original title: עץ לימון.
    Directed by: Eran Riklis.
    Written by: Suha Arraf, Eran Riklis.
    Cast: Hiam Abbass, Doron Tavory, Ali Suliman, Rona Lipaz-Michael, Tarik Kopty, Amos Lavi, Amnon Wolf, Smadar Jaaron, Danny Leshman, Hili Yalon.
    Cinematography: Rainer Klausmann.
    Edited by: Tova Asher.
    In Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles.
    Quad Cinema
    34 West 13th St., between 6th Ave. and University
    (212) 255-8800.

    "The Lemon Tree" is a Palestinian-Israeli film about bad neighbors and the fences they make. For purposes of the story — which reflects the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in miniature — the fence is a slightly absurd chain-link eyesore topped with barbed wire and overseen by a guard tower where an Israeli army conscript dutifully dozes. It closes off a 50-year-old lemon grove that provides a tiny living for a Palestinian widow. Cutting down the orchard, we are told, is "an absolute and immediate military necessity" because the defense minister has just moved in to the adjacent property and doesn't want terrorists sneaking out between the trees.

    The widow, Salma Zidane, gets little enough sympathy from her own side. "Why are you crying?" says a town patriarch. "Do you know how much land they've destroyed to build prisons for us?"

    The Lemon Tree  
    One person does take her side — a young lawyer who agrees to argue her case before the local court and then the supreme court. The townspeople are so obsessed with insinuations of sin as a widow carries on business with a single man that they fail to see what the outside world is seeing — a Palestinian claiming her human rights against the implacable demands of Israeli security. In the media, Salma becomes an international symbol of courage.

    "Symbol" is a key word here. "The Lemon Tree" feels slightly flat as a human story because it was really made for symbolic purposes. It gives its characters actions to perform and hardships to endure, but does not give them any chance to express inner thoughts that they must be having. By the end, people have made choices that you, having watched the movie, could probably find an emotional explanation for, but these are emotions that the characters themselves have not really shown or expressed. They are tight-lipped and private.

    On the symbolic level, though, it succeeds. Here we have a story of decisions made in the abstract that destroy the traditional lives of Palestinians in concrete ways. Land taken, walls imposed, the idea of security through enmity, and power feeding its own maw — these are the mega-issues of Israel and Palestine today, played out through this small story of two adjoining back yards. A pair of final images speak eloquently about the idea of security and its human cost.

    Equally symbolic are some of the smaller messages embedded in the film. When the defense-minister husband is away, his attractive, cosmopolitan wife looks wonderingly across the barbed wire and sometimes gives a moment's consideration to her fellow female on the other side. Mira is in many ways a comfortable bourgeoise housewife more concerned with decorating and throwing festive dinner parties than with the plight of women or the downtrodden, but the movie, through her, offers a hint that if women were running the place they might achieve levels of mutual respect and understanding beyond the testosterone-poisoned powers of men. Things could be solved over a glass of lemonade. And maybe it's true.

      The Lemon Tree
    The movie stumbles in one very subtle way, in the use of one very simple word: "wall." "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," Frost wrote in the same poem, and the real-life Israelis know this perfectly well. That's why, while actually bisecting the country with a massive wall the height of three people, they scrupulously avoid calling it what it is. The official term is ALWAYS "the separation barrier." They have enclosed themselves in a euphemism. Not so, however, in the film, where public officials refer several times to the "separation wall" — surely a mistake on the part of the filmmakers. The world does not love a wall, and Israelis have built one that divides themselves from the world.

    What is it that Frost was trying to say about walls and fences? "Good fences make good neighbors" are actually the words of a separate character in the poem, a neighbor whose fixation on fences reflects not prudence and propriety but suspicion and hardheadedness. These are two different faces of fences. Hostile fences are emblems of contempt, but polite fences can be walked around, or reached across. To a New Englander, the idea of a fence, a demarcating fence, a clarifying fence, sounds civilized.

    The "separation barrier" is not a civilized fence, and that's clearly the point of "The Lemon Tree." It is not an agreement. It is a fence that seizes from one side and gives to the other. It embodies rejection.

    The film offers the idea that two more enlightened, more caring, more motherly peoples might have no need for separation or barriers. This idea will seem naive to those who think only one way about the Middle East, but it will speak to others who dream of a more human world.

    MAY 30, 2009

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