Director Eran Riklis Talks About His Sweet/Tart Flick, Lemon Tree

Eran Riklis continues to fight the noble fight. One of Israel’s most prominent filmmakers, he zeroes in on Middle East frictions with an eye that’s keen on engendering discussion and tolerance. Cup Final (1991), for instance, centered around the mutual love for soccer between an Israeli soldier and his PLO captors. More recently, The Syrian Bride (2004) dealt with a Druze wedding and the absurd bureaucratic straits that accompany the ceremony. Earlier this week, the director sat down to discuss his latest Israeli-Palestinian parable Lemon Tree, borders, the splendor of leading lady Hiam Abbass, and his many upcoming projects, which include a film about a Jewish basketball coach recruited by the German national team in the ’70s.

Flavorwire: Lemon Tree was inspired by an actual court case. How did you develop the fictional tale from a factual tidbit?

Eran Riklis: I’m always looking for stories, whether on the Internet or, in previous years, in newspapers. Even stories that you hear, whether here or there. Basically, I like to be connected to reality, then take off in whatever direction I want. After The Syrian Bride, I was really looking for another project to do with Hiam Abbass. And I came across these two lines on the web. I researched it a bit more, but there wasn’t much information. So I said to myself, “Okay, I don’t need much more than that one-liner: A Palestinian woman goes to court against the Minister of Defense.” It’s big, yet it’s also a very small story. You always have to keep that in mind: you are telling a story, first of all. You want to capture your audience; then you can put in all the other vaguer elements. I would also say [the film’s] inspired by another 100,000 stories. These stories happen all the time, unfortunately.

FW: Why did you opt for the lemon tree over the region’s more common olive tree? Is it because the idea of “extending an olive branch” would be too easy?

ER: Too easy and almost contrived in a way. “Oh my god, no olive trees again!” It’s too much. When I first sat down and wrote the synopsis, I wrote lemon tree and then quoted the famous song, “Lemon Tree” [by Peter, Paul and Mary]. [The film] has all the elements of lemon: It’s fresh, a little bit sweet, a little bit tart. It has everything in it. In that sense, I felt very comfortable. Also, it’s funny to say this, but I like the title Lemon Tree. It’s catchy.

FW: There’s that young solider in the guard tower who constantly listens, often listlessly, to a test-prep tape. Besides acting as a sort of jester in this tragicomedy, he is also another instance of loneliness. In fact, his isolation seems endemic, as each of the main characters — Salma, Mira, and, later, Israel — are islands unto themselves. Why this common strand of loneliness?

ER: It’s a very good question because my co-writer Suha [Arraf] and I — once we sat down and thought about what the film is really about beyond the plot — said it’s about loneliness. And I think that is what we were aiming at. That’s why all the characters are isolated from each other. Whether it’s the minister and his wife, whether it’s between them and their kids, whether it’s the young solider — everyone is lonely in this film. It’s part of the reality of the region, which has so much conflict. I mean, you work in packs and try to struggle against the conflict, whether politically, violently or whatever. But, in the end, a lot of people find themselves on their own. Look at Salma: she creates this huge struggle against a system to protect her trees. But she’s on her own, nobody helps her. Her lawyer? He’s charming, of course, but I’m not sure you can trust him. Beyond the plot, beyond the politics, beyond almost every element, it’s about loneliness and isolation. The film is saying — again, I don’t want to sound corny about it — get together. People should help each other, people should come across borders to change things. Because if you’re isolated, and on your own, not much will happen.

FW: Like The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree focuses on the notion of borders, whether societal, emotional, or, of course, physical. What interests you about borders, which often become walls erected in the name of self-preservation?

ER: The emotional side of borders is what interests me, but obviously I come from a country where physical borders are very much present — travel twenty minutes and you’re at the border. It’s out of fear, I guess. Cultural, racial, whatever. But I guess they were meant to come down, like Berlin; I think that’s the optimistic part of the story. It’s all about the decision you make nearly every morning about what borders or boundaries you’re going to cross today, whether you’re going to remain static or you’re going to take a risk and bear the consequences.

FW: This is yet another collaboration with Palestinian-Israeli screenwriter Suha Arraf. What is it like working with her? Is she the one who gives the women with their grace?

ER: When I was initially writing The Syrian Bride on my own, I needed someone who knew the culture better than I did — even though I did a lot of research and everything — and who was a woman, which would balance me. I came across her in an interview she gave when she finished scriptwriting school in Tel Aviv. There was something interesting about her, an Arab woman in her ’30s, single. Big mouth. [laughs] So I figured she wass someone I should meet. For me, she was perfect, fresh. I always tend to ignore the fact that, of course, it looks good: Israeli director working with Palestinian writer. It sounds too perfect for this kind of film.

FW: Speaking of which, your cast and crew represent an United Nations-worth of multicultural collaboration — there’s your Swiss cinematographer, French and German producers, and so on. What result does this have on the actual production?

ER: I think it brings a good tension and energy because you have different schools of thought at work. And yet, it all begins and ends with love for the project. There’s no way I could’ve work with a Swiss cameraman [Rainer Kluasmann] if he hadn’t come to me and said, “Listen, I love this project, I want to do it. I feel it in my bones, like you do, even though I live in Zurich and I open the window and everything is perfect outside. [laughs] It’s really about connecting with people and, you know, sucking ideas out of each other to serve the film. It doesn’t matter what you believe in politically, it’s not about right or left. There’s a certain wave across the world which connects these people.

FW: How did you communicate on set?

ER: It was an English-speaking environment because, in Israel, most people speak English.

FW: Communication actually plays a central role in in the film. There’s this near-constitutional inability for the sides to sit down and reason it out. So, the media becomes the mouthpiece for Salma. Yet it’s also guilty of exasperating the situation beyond its simple origin. What role do you think media has in choosing which issues are spotlighted and thus fought?

ER: Media plays a crucial role, but here’s the problem: a story like the real-life case of Salma makes the headlines for a day, the second page the next day, and then it’s gone. I think follow-up is the main issue. As a filmmaker, I’m not trying to replace that part of the media, but a film can touch the central issue in a deeper way in that story’s there forever. Whenever people see the film, they’re reminded of the people at the core of the conflict. If it plays its role correctly, the media can do that; but it needs fresh cases almost every day. You need the blood and you don’t always have the blood. In Lemon Tree, the media is crucial on every level: part of the reason Salma can go all the way to the Supreme Court — beyond the legal system — is the fact that she enjoys the media hype.

FW: You mentioned that you wrote this role for Hiam. Is she the Dietrich to your Von Sternberg, or whichever actress-director collaboration you prefer? Can you describe your working relationship as well as what facet of her performance struck you most?

ER: [laughs] I’m actually developing another project for her called Safe House, which is a thriller and will be a little different. I think I was trying to observe the complexity of the Middle Eastern chaos, which meant I needed to evenhandedly deal with both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. I found that it’s interesting to use a mature woman because she brings another angle in terms of her role in society, her experience in life. When I met Hiam, I realized that even though she grew up in Israel in an Arab village — so she had all the basic ingredients — she had also spent 20 years or more in Paris. So she’s a totally sophisticated kind of European woman. I think that combination brings a lot of sensitivity and, yet, it’s a kind of up-to-date sensitivity. Because I’m wary of having these stereotypes of the poor Palestinian woman struggling for her trees and you say, “God”…

FW: Her face just has so much dignity etched on it.

ER: That’s precisely the word. You can’t take your eyes off her — she’s a woman in the full sense of the word. And even though you know that second chances for Arab widows in life is slim, you still wish it for her.

FW: While your tale directly addresses the region’s age-old struggle over soil, there’s also a universal appeal to it — perhaps because, as characters constantly iterate, “trees are people.” What has the response been thus far, in Israel and beyond?

ER: I’ll start with the good news: the film was a huge success in Europe, especially in Italy, France, Spain, Germany, etc. And in Brazil, it was a huge hit and ran in cinemas for 7 months. The bad news is that it was a flop in Israel. The people that did come to the cinema, generally loved it. But I think people at home read the one-liner, which we were trying to avoid, “Palestinian woman goes to court against the Minister of Defense.” It sounds too political, pro-Palestinian, “we don’t want to see it” But films have a long life: now it’s on television and it’s doing very well. Although I live in Israel and home court is always important, I work for the world, for everybody. To enjoy the reaction of the audience anywhere is probably more important than just my own country.

FW: One of your next projects is about a Jewish basketball coach who is asked to manage the German national team during the ’70s. That sounds irresistible.

ER: It is. It’s a true-life story about a man who claims he has no past because he threw it away when he came to Israel from Germany. Survived the Holocaust, lost his father there. Yet, 30-something years later, he’s requested to go back to Germany as the #1 coach in Europe. He accepts. So obviously you see the drama there. Plus, we built a very nice story which connects it to the Middle East. He meets a Turkish woman who’ s part of the first wave of Turkish immigration to Germany, which started in the late 70s. She’s there to look for her husband who went to work in Germany and disappeared and she happens to live in the apartment where the coach grew up when he was a kid in the 30s/40s. So they have this connection there.

Read our review of Lemon Tree here.