Up against a tree

Though 'Lemon Tree' is filmed in W. Bank, it's about fighting system - not politics, insists its creator.

hiam abbass 88 (photo credit: )
hiam abbass 88
(photo credit: )
Director Eran Riklis and actress Hiam Abbass have worked together on only two films, The Syrian Bride in 2004 and Lemon Tree, which just opened throughout Israel, but they speak with the ease of longtime collaborators. Anyone who sees these two films knows how lucky the two are to have found each other. Abbass's performance in The Syrian Bride as the bride's sister, fighting to carve out an identity for herself in her traditional Druse family, was the standout in a movie filled with wonderful actors. More than that, it was the heart and soul of the movie, which is even more true of her work in Lemon Tree. The film, which won the coveted Panorama Audience Award at the Berlin Film Festival, is a showcase for its hauntingly beautiful star, who plays a West Bank widow fighting a government order to cut down her lemon trees all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. Clearly, Riklis, a veteran Israeli director who made such films as Cup Final and Zohar, recognized Abbass's gifts and put her front and center in The Syrian Bride. That movie won so many international awards, particularly audience awards, it was hard to keep track; I lost count at 15. Today, sitting in the lobby of a Tel Aviv hotel, Abbass and Riklis are a little tired. They were out late at a screening of the film in Kafr Kari, an Arab village in the Triangle area. The film was warmly received there, but the director and actress shared a laugh over the reaction to a moment in which Salma, Abbass's character, shares a single kiss with Ziad, her young lawyer, played by Ali Suliman. Since The Syrian Bride, the Nazareth-born, Deir Hanna-raised actress has acted abroad in films such as Steven Spielberg's Munich and The Nativity Story (as well in several high-profile movies in this area, such as Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now and Amos Gitai's Free Zone), but she still understands the sensibilities of a Muslim audience in a village not too different from the one in which she was raised. "People were upset," said Riklis. "It got very quiet." However, most of the audience did sit through to the end, he said. "But we were just -" Abbass says, jokingly miming covering her face in shame. On an unseasonably hot morning, Abbass, dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and basketball sneakers, couldn't look or seem more different from the self-effacing, traditional character she plays. In the film, her character gradually transforms from a woman who has always done what was expected to a more assertive, even quietly rebellious person after Israel's defense minister moves across the road from her house, just over the Green Line. When his security detail decides that the lemon grove from which she has always made her living poses a security risk to the minister, a court orders her to cut the trees down. Her friends and family react with anger to the order, but no one seems to think there is anything she can do about it. Not until she meets the young lawyer does she realize that fighting it is a real option. The film opens with a title saying it is based on a true story, but when I ask if that story took place near Kafr Kari, Riklis says, "You could say it's based on 100,000 true stories. It's a well-known fact that many people suffer from land issues, although most often, it's about olive trees. We decided to use lemons because of the symbolism, the fruit is bitter, but you can make sweet lemonade. And it's a bittersweet story." Bittersweet or not, there are a number of scenes that show Salma lovingly preparing lemonade that may well leave audiences with a strong craving for this beverage. "This is the kind of story you might see in the paper, and then you flip past it and have your coffee and go on with your day. But I wanted to take you into the paper, so you can see the story beyond the words," he says. In spite of this plot, however, Riklis insists that Lemon Tree is not a political film. "It's Erin Brockovich in the Middle East. It's about going up against the system. That's a story everyone can relate to." He acknowledges that there are "sensitive issues at stake. But it's not a story about the political issues, it's about lemon trees, that mean everything emotionally to Salma, and her struggle to protect them. And it's about two lonely women - Salma, who is a widow and whose children have left home, and the defense minister's wife, who is also lonely. Salma's solitude is reflected through the solitude of the other woman." During the movie, although the women connect briefly with glances and a handshake, they don't get together for the kind of big scene you might expect from a less assured director. "We did shoot a scene with them together, talking, but in the end, we realized we didn't need it," says Riklis. Did he and his star ever imagine that the women would connect again? "There are certain loose ends in this story, just as there were at the end of The Syrian Bride," he says. When I suggest that perhaps they could get an apartment together in Tel Aviv, Abbass seems thrilled by the idea. "Yes, that could work, because she is walking into a new life at the end," she says. But then, Riklis brings her down to earth, pointing out that Abbass's character would not be likely to be granted an entry permit to travel within the Green Line. One aspect of reality that Abbass was very much aware of were the details of Salma's life, particularly the kind of modest clothing she wears throughout the film. At first, Abbass admits, she wasn't keen on this aspect of the role, especially the dark scarf Salma wears whenever she is out in public or even with a guest in her home. "It's part of the work. But I thought, who wants to wear this thing, although I knew it was my duty to have it. I saw it not as a religious symbol, but as a symbol of tradition. I live very far from there," says the actress, who now lives in Paris with her husband, the French actor Zinedine Soualem, and their two daughters. "But Salma is a traditional woman. I recognize the codes. There are women like that in my family." Still, she worried that she would feel stifled by the scarf and attire, until she discovered that by "playing with the little details, I was able to make the scarf suit the story." In the beginning, she wears it tightly around her face. Later, in a scene with the lawyer (the one that scandalized some audience members in Kafr Kari), it is very significant Salma invites him into her home without covering her hair. "The way she wears it in different scenes reveals so much about her," she says. She is embarrassed, though, when she learns that in a "making of..." documentary about the film, she was filmed giving out inscribed scarves to the crew as a joke gift. Asked about the win at Berlin, Riklis says, "We knew it was a good movie, but people there told us it was clear from the beginning that it would win something. Our cinematographer, Rainer Klausmann, who can be very tough in a Swiss way, came out of one of the screenings very happy and said, 'Even the stupid jokes are making people laugh.' So we were very pleased." In terms of screening it in different parts of the world, Riklis says, the reaction in the Arab village to the kissing scene aside, "People respond to the movie pretty much the same everywhere, if you tell a story people can identify with. Whether it's an international audience of 1,000 people, like at Berlin, or a much smaller group in a community center in a Muslim Arab village in Israel, you get the same response... A director is a manipulator, it's about getting an emotional response, not about educating people." While it seems it would be natural for the two to continue their collaboration (as well as their ongoing partnership with Riklis's co-screenwriter, Suha Arraf, who also scripted The Syrian Bride), it looks as if audiences may have to wait a while for that. "Right now, I'm busy promoting the film," says Riklis, which, after it opens here, will also be shown in France, throughout much of Europe and eventually in America. But Riklis, who produces films as well as directing (he produced Three Mothers, a movie directed by his wife, Dina Zvi-Riklis) is developing scripts and producing projects for television. He may make a film of the A.B. Yehoshua novel A Woman in Jerusalem. Abbass's time, for the immediate future, will also be taken up with publicity for Lemon Tree, which she will be promoting in France next week. Then it's on to the US, for a round of interviews to mark the opening of The Visitor, a drama directed by Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent) and starring character actor Richard Jenkins (The Kingdom). Abbass, who acts in Arabic, Hebrew, English and French, has also just wrapped a film for cult director Jim Jarmusch, The Limits of Control, in which she plays a mysterious woman who meets the lead character, played by Isaach De Bankole. The film also stars Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton. But in spite of their many commitments and options, the two know that the work they have done together is special. Says Abbass, "I love working with Eran because he lets me get to the truth of each character." Riklis notes, "It's hard to resist Salma, the way Hiam puts her stamp on the character."