Why fellow Israelis hated my hit film

Eran Riklis has had global success with his film The Lemon Tree, but it has proved less than popular at home.

By Nick Johnstone, October 23, 2008
Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, whose character in The Lemon Tree fights the Israeli Defence Ministry to save her orchard from destruction

Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, whose character in The Lemon Tree fights the Israeli Defence Ministry to save her orchard from destruction

Earlier this year in Israel, a great deal of hype accompanied the cinema release of The Lemon Tree, the latest film from writer/director Eran Riklis. After the success of The Syrian Bride (2004), a film about a Druze woman who has to leave Israel and her family in the Golan Heights, forever, in order to marry a man across the border in Syria, critics and audiences alike were eager to see what Riklis had to say next about the political status quo in Israel.

That eagerness waned when word spread that The Lemon Tree told the story of Salma, a Palestinian widow living on the Green Line between the West Bank and Israel, whose precious lemon trees come under threat when security forces working for her new neighbour, the Israeli Defence Minister, deem the orchard a security hazard.

Fortunes then reversed in February, when The Lemon Tree scooped the prestigious Panorama Audience Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Once again Riklis found himself fronting the Israeli film of the moment.

"Berlin created a huge hype here," says 54-year-old director, speaking from his home in Tel Aviv. "We released the film pretty soon after that and it totally failed at cinemas. It was a disaster. It was very strange."

Having watched the film go on to become a success in many other countries, Riklis has had time to analyse the lukewarm reaction at home.

"The basic truth which maybe we were blinded from seeing is that in the end, we presented an Israeli audience with a film for which the basic synopsis is this: a Palestinian woman goes to court against the Israeli Minister of Defence. That sounds kind of threatening. People start thinking: ‘OK, somebody's trying to say something about our security forces, our defence minister, and it's a Palestinian woman. What right does she have to go to court?' It brings out a lot of, I don't want to say demons, but touchy and sensitive feelings."

Does he really think the film flopped because Israelis ran from the idea of a Palestinian heroine? "I think the audience simply said: ‘This must be pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, I don't want to see it.' And even though we did a very sophisticated campaign and tried to really hide these elements and bring forward the story of two women across the border, the fact is we didn't succeed."

The film is loosely based on a true story which Riklis read on the internet while finishing The Syrian Bride. At the time, he was already thinking of making a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hoping to work again with Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, who shone in his previous film.

"In The Syrian Bride, I said most of what I wanted to say about the Middle East but I still had an urge to go further and into more dangerous territories in terms of, let's deal with the real thing - the Palestinians. And when I saw the story on the internet, I said to myself, the ingredients are there. And once I knew Hiam (Abbass) was going to play the Palestinian woman, Salma, it made my life easier, in terms of, I knew I had good ammunition."

From there, Riklis began sketching a story. "When I wrote the first synopsis, I wrote, this is a Middle Eastern Erin Brokovich. A lot of people identified with that."

He then co-wrote the screenplay with 39-year-old female Palestinian writer Suha Arraf, with whom he also co-wrote The Syrian Bride. Arraf gave Salma's character an authentic voice. "We worked to bring Salma's character out of the stereotype and that's the Erin Brokovich element. Salma is not yet another poor Palestinian woman who knows nothing, she's much more rounded than that."

Riklis sees nothing remarkable about an Israeli collaborating with two Palestinian women. "My leading actress is Palestinian, my co-writer's Palestinian, but so what? It's not like I deserve a medal. On the other hand, I'm aware that from an Israeli perspective, it's quite rare to have this easy-going collaboration. But this is not a case of: ‘Hey listen, some of my best friends are Arabs.'"

Riklis attributes his talent for shrewdly observing life in Israel and on its borders to a life often lived outside of the country. He was born on October 2 1954 in Jerusalem. His father was a "bohemian scientist" of Russian lineage and his mother a singer and musician of Austrian descent. The family globe-trotted throughout Riklis's childhood. He grew up in Canada, the United States, Israel and Brazil.

"My father was a professor of biochemistry and radiobiology. He worked in the atomic centre in the south of Israel which officially never existed and where presumably all the bombs are hidden."

Riklis studied filmmaking at Tel Aviv University and the National Film School in the UK. He set out his political agenda for filmmaking with his graduation film, On A Clear Day You Can See Damascus (1984). He moved into directing commercials and working in television, before making his debut feature, Cup Final (1991), a then fresh take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Next came Zohar (1993), a drama based on the life of singer Zohar Argov; the acclaimed documentary Borders (1999); rock 'n' roll drama Volcano Junction (1999) and romantic drama Temptation (2002). Then, in 2004, politics back to the fore, The Syrian Bride became a huge international success. He sees The Lemon Tree as a furthering of issues raised in that film.

"It's again people trapped in a political situation. It's not a film making a harsh political statement. I don't believe in that."

Despite this, he admits it has been misinterpreted as such in Israel. "There's a big gap between the way the film was received in Israel and the way it's been received in almost every other territory in the world. It's hit it big worldwide but not in Israel, which personally is a pity. I regret it, because it's my home court."

Today, Riklis lives a secular life in Tel Aviv with his filmmaker wife, Dina Zvi-Riklis. Their son, Jonathan, is a jazz pianist in New York and their daughter, Tammy, is an editor for Ha'aretz. Despite his political views, he considers himself intensely connected to Israel and supported himself throughout film school working as a security officer for El Al. He sees The Lemon Tree as above all a call for understanding.

"The headlines we all know; let's go beyond that and see who these people really are. The Lemon Tree of course emotionally supports Salma's struggle, but nevertheless looks at the defence minister, who is also a human being."

Riklis hopes the film will speak to anyone who has challenged an unjust situation or lived through a period of conflict.

"I was in India at a festival, and at the Q&A a Palestinian woman stood up and said: ‘I am Palestinian, I come from Palestine and I want to say to Mr Riklis that this is a wonderful film, it deals in a fair way with our troubles and also your troubles, Israeli troubles.' To me, that situation underlines that people should go beyond asking: ‘Is this film pro or against us?'

"I don't make films for anyone, for Palestinians, for Israelis. I make films for a global audience."

The Lemon Tree opens the UK Jewish Film Festival on November 8 before going on general release from December 12. For information about the festival visit www.ukjewishfilmfestival.org.uk

Last updated: 11:36am, September 22 2009