Bitter fruits of the occupation

May 21, 2009

Scott Johnson reviews a new film that exposes the indignities of Palestinian life under occupation.

IN LEMON Tree, Hiam Abbass plays a character much like the one she played in last year's The Visitor--a middle-aged woman whose life is upended by the personal effects of global politics. She only appeared in the last half of the earlier film, but she is the lead character of Lemon Tree, displaying the same sort of quiet nobility in the face of an inhumane system.

Abbass plays Salma Zidane, a Palestinian woman living in the West Bank who makes her livelihood from a small orchard of lemon trees. She has inherited the orchard from her family who cared for it for 50 years until the (fictional) Israeli Defense Minister Israel Navon moves next door. Their homes are literally separated by a few yards and a barbed wired fence marking the Green Line--the border between the West Bank and Israel.

The minister's security team hastily erects a watchtower to look over Salma's land and then decides that the orchard is a security threat and the trees must be removed. This indignity forces Salma to sue the state of Israel and eventually take her case to the Israeli Supreme Court.

Salma (Hiam Abbass) in the Lemon Tree
Salma (Hiam Abbass) in the Lemon Tree

In the meantime, of course, she must deal with a security force that slowly encroaches on her land and deprives Salma of her livelihood and her dignity. Eventually, the orchard is fenced off pending review of the case, but while Salma cannot access the orchard, the security team has free reign. At one point, the soldiers even enter the orchard to retrieve lemons for Navon's pampered guests.

This leads to a very effective scene in which Salma reacts with justified outrage at this double standard while the guests look on. We can tell that the Israelis think they see a crazy Arab woman, but we have much more sympathy for Salma and cannot blame her for trying to protect her land.

Other indignities ensue as the legal process slowly unfolds and "the facts on the ground" are altered in the favor of the defense minister.

THE HUMAN story here has much potential and some of it is realized, but there are also some missteps in the film. For example, while Salma slowly comes to have more confidence in herself, a near romance develops with a man in her life. But rather than developing her character, it simply feels forced and awkward, unlike the tenderness of the relationship Abbass' character finds in The Visitor.

Review: Movies

Lemon Tree, written and directed by Eran Riklis, starring Hiam Abbass.

Even more problematic--and more central to the story--is the character of Mira Navon, the defense minister's wife. Mira seems to represent the viewpoint of the liberal Zionist who both wants to defend her homeland and reach a peaceful agreement with the Palestinians. She would prefer to replace the barbed wire with white pickets. The untenability of this position is shown well with her vacillations between supporting her husband--and succumbing to his pressure--while desiring to reach out to Salma.

She quietly objects to her husband and wishes that she "could just be a better neighbor" to Salma, as she tells an American reporter when the international media picks up the story. But it seems inconceivable that Mira--clearly an educated woman who is married to a major Israeli politician--would be shocked by the act of cutting down a few trees. Certainly, she must be aware of the policies for which Navon and his government are responsible, but many of her actions are based on this presumed ignorance.

There is also a sense in which both women have a common bond in that they are rebelling against the men in their lives--Mira against her husband and Salma against the ineffectual and male-dominated Palestinian Authority, among others. This bond is somewhat tenuous, as we can see with Mira's failure to take decisive action and her ultimate freedom to extract herself from the situation.

But this leads to a jarring moment in which Mira laments how the lemon trees have upended her life. Certainly, she deserves more respect from her husband, but considering what Salma is confronting, the comment feels incredibly out of touch and insensitive. A moment that appears to be designed to build sympathy for the character only achieves the opposite.

This is not at all to say that Mira should be portrayed as simply a racist land thief--there are many ways that she could be confronted by the reality of her husband's policies that are both honest and convincing. This is clearly the intent behind Mira's character, but I don't think it entirely succeeds.

A better example of this is seen in a brief moment involving the young, M16-wielding Israeli soldier stationed in the watchtower overlooking the orchard. He is prepared to blow away terrorists on sight, but he has no idea what to do with this pesky Palestinian woman who insists on tending to her trees. His situation is both funny and revealing.

Salma's quiet resistance is the central and most affective part of the story. The roadblocks she encounters are cause for much pessimism--nobody believes that she will really achieve justice, probably the audience least of all.

However, the point of Lemon Tree is not to point the way forward but to expose the indignities of life under occupation. Aside from the atrocities and bloody massacres in Gaza, there are bitter conflicts that ordinary Palestinians face even during times of "peace." Portraying these everyday outrages is where this film is most effective.

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