I’m no expert or anything, but I’m pretty sure it says somewhere in the Bible something about treating others as you would like to be treated. Funny, considering how many world religions use the Bible as the basis of their faith, the number of people who ignore that little nugget of wisdom. I don’t pretend to understand the Middle East much, either. But I’m convinced that, whatever the region’s problems are, they’re not suffering from a surfeit of “love they neighbor.”
This question of neighborly relations (particularly as it relates to the modern Middle East) is the subject of Lemon Tree, the latest film from longtime writer/director/producer Eran Riklis (The Syrian Bride). Set in a dusty, sun-burnished West Bank town functioning as an uneasy dividing line between Palestine and Israel, the film introduces us to a small cast of characters. Firstly, there is Salma (Hiam Abbass), a sad-faced Palestinian widow whose now grown children have scattered to the four corners of the globe. This leaves Salma the lonely task of tending to a lush lemon grove her father planted many decades ago. Life has clearly given this woman lemons, and she’s trying her best to make lemonade. (In this particular case, that’s not just a metaphor.)
Trouble brews, however, when the Israeli defense minister (Doron Tavory) takes up residence next door. It’s a calculated PR move, meant to prove that Arabs and Israelis can get along. But the defense minister is an unbending believer in the axiom that good fences make good neighbors. He immediately recognizes Salma’s lemon grove as a security threat. No telling what Palestinian terrorists might be lurking among all those green leaves.
A letter soon arrives ordering the uprooting of Salma’s lemon trees. The Israeli government is even generous enough to compensate her for the loss. But resolute Salma is unwilling to lose her only source of income and the last tie to her long-dead father. She hires a Palestinian lawyer (Ali Suliman) and takes the government to court.
The story, based on a real incident, reads like a fable. Paying attention strictly to the David vs. Goliath surface of it, viewers will be amply rewarded. But Lemon Tree has a number of subtle stories lurking just under the surface. Mirroring Salma’s situation is that of the defense minister’s wife (Rona Lipaz-Michael), an equally lonely woman isolated from her arrogant, ever-working husband. Trapped in her fancy, heavily secured mansion, the minister’s wife peers over the border into Salma’s forbidden lemon grove and sees not the face of an enemy, but the face of a suffering neighbor.
Driven less by his simple plot and more by the emotions of his characters, Riklis feels free to explore a number of different avenues. There’s the largely unspoken attraction Salma has for her young lawyer (something that is certainly not allowed under Arabic law). There’s the implication that maybe the minister is cheating on his wife. There’s the tangible bond that Salma and the minister’s wife have—despite the fact that they never really meet. These and other subplots rise and fall quietly in the background as Riklis goes dutifully about his task.
Lemon Tree is a lovely, deeply human film, concentrating more on interpersonal relations that international politics. Like a great deal of cinema coming out of the Middle East these days, it’s sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. That isn’t to say, though, that its position is anti-Israel. It’s a story about people—most of whom assume they’re doing right but wrong themselves and their neighbors when they can’t look past policy or dogma or tradition and simply see the face of a fellow human being.