The new film by Israeli director Eran Riklis addresses the Israeli-Palestinian border conflict with biting humour and has already caused a furore at this year's Berlinale Film Festival. Jochen Kürten has seen "Lemon Tree"
Israeli cinema is followed with particular interest in Germany. For one thing, after the horrors of Germany's Nazi past, there continues to be a great interest in the fate of the state of Israel and especially the country's culture. And, of course, for another, the smouldering Middle East conflict is also a matter of great concern here in Germany.
Members of this year's audience at the Panorama section of the Berlinale Film Festival were of one mind – this film deserved a prize. As there are no Golden or Silver Bear awards for films featured in this section, "Lemon Tree" won the Panorama Audience Award.
Salma's lemon grove under threat
Salma, a Palestinian widow, lives on her West Bank property directly on the Israeli border. She is suddenly ordered to uproot her garden with its small lemon grove.
No less than the Israeli defence minister has moved right next door and his security team demand that the trees be cut down as they supposedly pose too great a risk – terrorists could hide in the undergrowth.
Salma, however, is not so easily defeated. She begins to fight back. With the aid of a young Palestinian lawyer, she attempts to get justice through the courts. The dispute over the lemon grove even results in a falling out between the minister and his wife. She understands the concerns of her new neighbour.
Beyond the border wall
"Lemon Tree" is a film about the conflict that we can see every evening on the news. It is about the most sensitive border in the world and about the people who live and work on this border. It is about land claimed by the most varied of groups.
The conflict in the film comes to a head when Salma, her lawyer, and her fatherly friend actually appear before the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem.
Of course, director Eran Riklis, who along with a few other filmmakers represents the cream of new Israeli cinema, relies on the emotional power of film, includes a love story in the plot structure, and doesn't refrain from the occasional melodramatic touch.
David against Goliath
Riklis here takes the side of the Palestinians, telling the tale of the battle of David against Goliath under altered circumstances – a revolt by the weak against the powerful.
He employs the highly symbolic story of the widow and her lawyer, who chose to face the massive military might of their neighbouring country in order to send a signal for peace and tolerance.
And he does this so convincingly that hardly a viewer will fail to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the motives and interests of both sides. "Lemon Tree" is political cinema and a private tragedy. The film highlights a poignant individual fate against the backdrop of world events.
With a simple, fictitious story, the director thereby succeeds in distilling the larger, real conflict for the cinema. This was clearly sensed by the public during the Berlinale and will likewise be recognized by the audiences in German cinema houses in the weeks to come.
© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by John Bergeron
"Lemon Tree" (Israel/Germany/France 2007); Director: Eran Riklis; Script: Suha Arraf, Eran Riklis; Actors: Hiam Abbas, Ali Suliman, Doron Tavory