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May 2013


cast: Stephen Dorff, Abdallah El Akal, and Alice Taglioni

director: Eran Riklis

110 minutes (15) 2012
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2

RATING: 4/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont


Recent years have seen the appearance of a number of Israeli films attempting to impose some sort of narrative sense on the political, social, and psychological cataclysm that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, rather than trying to make sense of a war as it continues to unfold, these films all seek refuge in the past and use the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon as a sort of symbolic proxy for the current state of Arab-Israeli relations. Like both Samuel Maoz's Lebanon (2009), and Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir (2008), before it, Eran Riklis's Zaytoun is a film about the Lebanon war that is really a film about Israel today.

The film opens on a Palestinian refugee camp where a young boy (Abdallah El Akal) tries to make money and play football, while dodging the older Palestinians who insist upon dragging him off to a disused football stadium in order to undergo primitive military training. The youth's lack of political engagement is evident not only in his lack of interest in 'returning home' but also in his decision to assume the name of the Brazilian footballer Zico. After a few hours of running away from his elders, the boy is eventually caught, pressed into service, and charged with keeping watch over an imprisoned Israeli fighter pilot (Stephen Dorff). After some initial unpleasantness, the pair make an agreement whereby Zico will help the pilot to escape in return for the pilot helping Zico to reach his family's old farm. Zaytoun is principally about the pair's journey into Israel and the sense of kinship and understanding that comes from their need to trust and support one another in order to get where they both want to go.

As you might expect from what is effectively a two-hour road movie, Zaytoun is incredibly pretty to look at. Indeed, despite being set amidst nothing more than a series of dusty roads, dusty checkpoints, and dusty rest-stops, Riklis and his cinematographer Daniel Laustsen manage to capture the beauty of the middle-east in a way that communicates exactly why it is that so much blood has been spilled over a few dusty hills and mountainsides. When Zico finally visits his family's farm and stands on what should be his front step, breathing the air, he sighs and in that sigh lies a desire to go home so intense and heartfelt that decades of war and thousands of deaths somehow begin to make a kind of twisted sense. The only problem is that, as beautiful as that moment may be, it simply cannot support a film as baggy and aimless as Zaytoun.

The most obvious problem with Zaytoun is that its two main protagonists are nothing more than crude caricatures. For example, while Dorff is undoubtedly excellent as a gruff and nationalistic warrior who softens into something more human, that image of the gruff warrior who has done terrible stuff and yet still remains human is a stock character common to pretty much every war film made in the last 40 years. Similarly, El Akal is very good as a young boy who finds himself sucked into war when what he really wants to do is play football, but that picture of fractured innocence and unwanted adulthood is so familiar and generic that it really isn't very interesting to watch. Add to this a series of minor characters who are either crude racial stereotypes (a sleazy Arab cab driver who listens to shitty music while ripping off his customers), or sexist fantasies (an impossibly pretty and forgiving UN Peacekeeper who soothes all tempers and dissolves all problems), and you have a recipe for a complete lack of dramatic substance. However, as dull and regrettable as this may be, the rudimentary nature of Zaytoun's characterisation makes perfect sense once one realises what it is that the film is actually trying to achieve.

It is often very difficult to make films about the present day. Aside from the fact that reality may well change while you are attempting to reproduce it on film, some issues are just too controversial and divisive to be dealt with in real time. For example, John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968) was an attempt to make a film about the Vietnam War while that war was still taking place, and the result was a film whose jingoistic ignorance and racism continue to be mocked to this day. People don't just mock The Green Berets because Wayne got it wrong... they mock it because Wayne got it wrong while the body bags were still being shipped home.

Conversely, Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970) took a bunch of ideas about the Vietnam War and projected them back onto the Korean War thereby not only avoiding the crassness of Wayne's endeavour but also providing the director with an easy out: of course Altman didn't get it completely right! The Korean and Vietnam Wars were very different! Films like Zaytoun, Waltz With Bashir, and Lebanon, all follow M*A*S*H, while attempting to deal with the on-going Arab-Israeli conflict by projecting it back onto a historical event that took place 30 years ago. As with M*A*S*H, this process of abstraction and projection not only protects the directors from accusations of crassness and politicisation, it also gives them an obvious excuse if and when they get it wrong.

Zaytoun's characters need to be generic because their real purpose is to serve as abstract representations of concrete reality. What I mean by this is that while Dorff's fighter pilot may seem thin and generic, this lack of depth is due to the fact that Dorff is not playing a person as much as he is playing a symbolic representation of Israel itself: Israel the gruff warrior state that has done some terrible shit while somehow maintaining its democratic and liberal credentials. Similarly, El Akal is not playing a young Palestinian boy but a symbolic representation of the Palestinian people as a whole: the youthful, energetic and much put-upon Palestinians who only want to live their lives and yet somehow find themselves being sucked into generation after generation of brutal and unceasing warfare.

The real problem with Zaytoun is that while Riklis clearly made a deliberate choice to sacrifice depth of character in return for increased depth of symbolic representation, the fable he weaves around his generic archetypes is so trite and simple-minded that the audience is left with neither a decent set of characters nor a particularly good idea about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, strip away the pretty landscape photography, and the broadly comic secondary characters, and you are left with a film that suggests the Palestinian question could be solved if only both sides could be a little bit nicer to each other.

Though undeniably a creative failure, Zaytoun does deserve some credit for both its beauty and its humanity. Whereas both Waltz With Bashir and Lebanon reduced the people of Lebanon to faceless components in purely Israeli psychodramas, Riklis not only tries to see things from a Palestinian perspective but also stresses the universal humanity that binds Palestinians to Israelis as well as people of every other nation. So, while there is little in Zaytoun to actually disagree with, lofty sentiments alone are not enough to sustain a two-hour film.

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