The Zaytoun director discusses the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, social politics and how his films fit into it all.
Eran Riklis' latest film Zaytoun, as in his previous films, attempts to look at personal relationships beyond political border categories. In Zaytoun we are taken to Beirut 1982, where young boy Fahed (Abdalla El Akhal), who recently lost his only surviving parent to an Israeli air raid, is in charge of watching captured Israeli pilot, Yoni (Stephen Dorff). Eventually the two embark on a road trip from Beirut to the southern border of Lebanon: Yoni to get back to his base, and Fahed to plant his father’s olive tree in the town where he was born.
The film brings together a combination of frictions that were surfacing at that time. Fahed lives in the Sabra & Shatila refugee camps of Beirut. The complexity between the Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians and Israelis is simmering; in a few months the heinous massacre on the Sabra and Shatila camps would occur. But what Riklis is showing us here is that despite all of these intricacies, this so-called unlikely relationship is rather human, and not so unlikely at all. LWLies caught up with Riklis to talk about these regional histories, social politics and how his films fit in to it all.
LWLies: This isn’t the first film that you make that has the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in its periphery. Cup Final was set during the onslaught, but Zaytoun is set in the spring preceding it. What is it about that time that draws you to setting your films around it?
Riklis: It was interesting to come back to after Cup Final because I think it’s a pivotal moment in Israeli history and the whole relationship with Palestinians. I think a lot of filmmakers treat Lebanon and the Lebanon wars as something that is a dramatic turning point on all levels, from an Israeli point of view and certainly from a Palestinian point of view. In September  the Lebanese elected president was assassinated and then the massacre followed. While in the south, the south Lebanon army was actually run by Israel. So it’s a complicated relationship between the two countries. The Palestinians were very dominant in the south, but even in Beirut. In the film I really tried to struggle around the fact that west Beirut was controlled by the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], east Beirut is controlled by the Christians. Then in the middle of all that you have at least 10 more political and religious factions that all have their own agenda and are trying to run the country.
The war started on 6 June and Zaytoun takes place in May. I think the feeling was that if we get into the war everything starts collapsing, this story would not work during the war. Beirut was bombarded daily and the whole Palestinian infrastructure kind of collapsed, so to make this story work it had to be just before the war. To me it was an interesting period because you can feel the drums of war beating, but the Palestinians are still in control and the Israelis are randomly attacking. Unfortunately for this particular pilot he isn’t even shot down, he has a malfunction and parachutes from the sky. So in a way it was a period where I could explore the relationship easier because it didn’t have to deal with the war and all that.
I was really interested in the way that you created the images of Beirut and Lebanon. They looked composited, particularly the shot of Beirut’s coastline at the beginning. Though I know that you shot in Israel, and as an Israeli I presume you can’t go to Lebanon.
We shot in Israel but I can honestly say that everything in the film is pretty close to the reality of Lebanon – visually speaking. It was interesting because I was working with a Lebanese guy from Beirut at the special effects place in Paris. He assured me that it really looks like Beirut. From the footage I’ve seen, if anything, Beirut was more devastated than what I show in the film. I wanted to keep the sense of the place which is alive and has its own dynamics but is slowly, slowly being destroyed for a variety of reasons. The film is set following seven years of brutal civil war; everything was destroyed. Add to that Israeli air attacks and you get a city that is really destroyed, but you get a sense of the past. Beirut was a westernized place; it was the 'Paris of the Orient'. But here it is, a western looking city that is devastated and destroyed, but you get a sense of history there.
In my production office we literally had hundreds of metres of photos of the real Lebanon for inspiration of the images we are trying to achieve. We also needed to use a lot of imagination. For example the shot you’re talking about is not even Haifa, it’s a city near Tel Aviv which I saw a couple of years ago and I thought that if I even needed a shot of Beirut that was it. That was the most complicated shot in terms of special effects because we had to build that road, it doesn’t exist in reality, we put the road in, the Ferris wheel, we destroyed the buildings, we changed the coastline. That is the way the whole film was worked out. For instance there’s a shot where the taxi is leaving the city and there’s a pan and you see an airline advertisement. In the background there is this big marine biology institute just outside Haifa. We replaced it with an old crusaders fort; anyone whose seen that so far who is Lebanese or has a relationship with Lebanon has said that that is the Fort in Saida. I always reply, 'yeah, sure' but in reality it is all in Israel.
That’s good, because we’ve seen some bad examples of Israel being used as a set for an Arab country.
I have one thing that is stuck in mind. Not Without My Daughter is set in Tehran but everything was shot in Tel Aviv. It’s interesting because everything was shot near what is now the new central bus station. It looked like Tehran, they did a lot of art work, but the one thing they didn’t bother to change is the colour of the buses. So when someone from Tel Aviv watches the film, you see your number five bus that you take in the morning there in supposedly the middle of Tehran and it completely destroys it for a lot of Israelis. On one had you say, who’s gonna know, but on the other hand, people do know. I really tried to respect that and go as far as I could about being really precise about things.
The casting of Zaytoun is quite interesting. You have Hollywood actor Stephen Dorff, which is quite different for your films which usually cast Arab and Israeli actors. But also, your other main character is a kid, played by Abdalla El Akhal.
We had a budget that was a bit bigger than your normal Israeli film. We needed an international name. Some people didn’t want to tackle an Israeli pilot, it seemed too political for them. I ended up meeting Stephen [Dorff] which initially I was thinking: this guy is a California boy, how is he going to play an Israeli pilot? But actually it was a challenge and I think I discovered something behind the façade, which was interesting to explore. We got down to getting the accent right, and the demeanor right and at the end of the day he gave a good performance. The kid's story is a bit more complicated because the leading kid Abdalla (El Akhal), has a reputation around Tel Aviv. I had already worked with him on a short film that I did a few years ago. It sounds ridiculous but he has had about 27 roles. He is well know in Israel in the industry, people know that if you need an Arab kid you take him.
That disturbed me, he was too much of an actor so I told him he has to forget that. I told him, you don’t know anything, I want to take you back to Beirut, its 1982, you weren’t born then, you are a Palestinian kid now. It was a process of peeling away his sense of 'been there, done that'. Then I discovered a hyper, intelligent, sharp, sensitive kid who was a joy to work with. I found the complexity of his performance astonishing. The other kids were the result of months looking around at schools, drama centers. The Arabic community in Israel doesn’t have that many drama schools, but we managed to get a good group of kids. It was both authentic and cinematic, it was important to keep that feeling of authenticity but still it’s a film that is supposed to reach a wide audience. I tried to make it accessible yet realistic.
In terms of how it is going to be received, the film is heavy laden with Palestinian resistance imagery, from the very 1982 kiffeyeh-aviator glasses combination, to the emblematic right-to-return symbol of keys. Does this ever cause issue, as an Israeli director, from certain audiences such as the American or Israeli?
All my films have always been on the edge, Lemon Tree had an Arab woman suing the Israeli minister of Defense. I’ve never shied away from these issues because I’ve figured that I’ve developed this technique, almost, where you can do something that the audience would digest relatively easily, even if the audience is opposed to what the film is trying to convey or has a strong prejudice against Israelis, Palestinians, whatever. I think I try to make films that go around that. You can come to the cinema, sit down for two hours and I'll give you enjoyment, as a film first of all, and I’ll make your life a little bit easier in terms of characters, their emotions and things like that. If you’re still thinking, 'who cares about the Palestinians' or 'these Israelis are brutes', whatever it is, then that’s fine.
My experience has been that people find it relatively easy to access a human point of view with a film. Once you get through that narrow opening in the door I think everything is possible in terms of really getting the audience to realise that this is not about political messages, it's not about a dogmatic approach that I decide, it's really about going beyond the headlines, beyond the television, beyond what you see and read on the internet, beyond what you think you know and feel and just try and open up for a bit. It’s either a big success, or it’s a big failure. I think in this film in particular its difficult not to like the boy. Even though he has a gun in his hand for half the time, it's not easy to watch those images but he’s really so loveable you go with it. The pilot as well, he starts out as your typical pilot, he could be Tom Cruise in Top Gun, an international notion of what a pilot is, but then it changes, you get some complex views of both of them.
Do you get criticism from the Israeli community?
Yes, a lot. My reputation in Israel is interesting because of a film I made in the '90s called Zohar which was big hit. It was biopic about a famous singer, Zohar Argov. He was the number one Safardic singer. He was never played on the radio but he was a huge hit with cassettes that were played on the streets. He became a household name. It was a classic story, he died of an overdose. He became an icon of the non-European Jews in Israel. More than 50 per cent came from Arab countries and their culture was kind of oppressed and put aside. The internal issues that I dealt with in that film made me popular on the local front.
Cup Final, which was before this film, was not received well in Israel at all. It got very bad reviews, it wasn’t till about 10 years later that people started to say that maybe it was ahead of its time. It dealt with issues that people didn’t deal with in those days. Then when I stepped into The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree, I was walking in a treacherous terrain I guess. Israel is a democratic society but also because of Israeli character, they probably won’t come to another Israeli and say, 'shut up I don’t want to hear what you’re saying'. It’s difficult for me because all my films, including Zaytoun, use Israeli public money. The films raise a lot of emotions, but people don’t think enough. They say 'Okay, it's left-wing' but if I can manage people to think further like I did for example in Lemon Tree. It was difficult for people to say that she is wrong, it was a simple set up – here she had her trees in her garden, the neighbor was the Ministry of Defense: does that mean we should cut down her trees? I don’t think so. People were finding themselves supporting this kind of woman even if it is against our interests and against our Ministry of Defense.
For me it is important otherwise I would be making political films that wouldn’t be seen by anyone. Today I think this notion of political films is gone. Today you have to be a bit more clever than that, you have to reach an audience. You don’t want it showing in some film club in the middle of the night. If I have something to say, I really want people to see it. The way I particularly do it is this kind of blend with the American way of making films, make sure you have a good story make sure you have characters that work and make sure its ok to have popcorn in the films. I grew up in Israel, I was in the Israeli Army – though I hate hearing myself say that – but I paid my dues. I can say whatever I want about this country now. Once you are part of the game you have the right. If you want to be part of this, you can come here, suffer like all of us, and then you can gain your right to say what is right and wrong.
In that your films generally deal with bringing Israelis and Arabs together, particularly looking at captor and captive. Given the sort of narrative that you are putting out through your films, how would you like your films to resonate?
It's almost like I’m doing a full circle. Sometimes I read things that people have written about me and it's almost like sometimes there is a certain cynicism about films that try to break these barriers, break these borders between people. What I would really like to convey is that it is all about people and putting away what misconceptions you have of the region. For me it goes beyond the region, this is a particular story about Palestinians and Israelis. But if you take the same elements and put them in Ireland, East Europe, Asia – it’s the same story.
I think if there’s one think id like to convey it's that beyond political notions and political prejudice there is someone suffering from a political decision made by someone far away from him. This whole notion of global, regional, local politics and the way it affects everybody’s lives. We can be sitting here in central London and all is fine, but someone in Washington might make a decision that might affect our life. It’s a kind of Kafkaesque approach with a sense of locality. It was always my goal, there was always a question: how do you become universal with your films? My notion is that there is always a way to do that: the more local and precise you are you actually reach a more global audience. Today people find it easier than before to grasp the essence of a story. In this film, it’s a pilot, something you recognize immediately as a character. The kid is a Palestinian child with a very particular, unfortunate childhood but at the same time he could be a kid running around a favela or anywhere. These are icons that you can relate to.