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Zaytoun stars Stephen Dorff (left) as Israeli pilot Yoni, and Abdallah El Akal as Fahed

Zaytoun: Unlikely Buddy Movie Might Change Hearts

(Zaytoun opens October 18th in November at The Screen in Santa Fe.)

A war movie becoming a buddy movie is surely not unheard of, but it’s far more rare when the buddies are a captured Israeli pilot and a Palestinian boy far older than his years. The wisdom of children is a subtext of this beautiful movie by Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis.

We situate from Zaytoun’s opening credits: the 1982 Lebanon War, also called “the first Lebanon war.” Considering the violence and the epoch that is being aired, the film restricts itself laudably from the chest-beating motifs of American war movies.

Here, from the very beginning, we’re in a city that is both incredibly beautiful, yet in the process of devastation — machine-gun holes ripped through school walls, roofless houses. Tensions run high because of the realpolitik — a history that many American viewers are likely to understand sketchily if at all. Palestinian encampments in Lebanon have made Beirut a zone with many borders. Snipers enforce them. War is afoot, and the Israeli jets overhead carry payloads that make for heavy casualties indeed.

We don’t know all that yet. All we see at first is a young boy who is like a boy anywhere, running through streets with other tumbling young rascals and a spotted dog (the “Palestinian dog, Churchill.”) Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), 12, is Palestinian and lives in Shatila (along with the Sabra refugee camps, a site later made infamous because of the genocide by Ariel Sharon’s Army).

When we meet him, Fahed has escaped the camp and is hawking chewing gum amid a dusty chaos of ambulances and armored vehicles. It seems innocuous enough but he’s playing a real-life game of risk. Khaki-wearing men come in humvees to take the boys back.

Soon Fahed is “home,” which is the small, roofless dwelling where he lives with his grandfather and father. A framed photograph of a dead young woman, his mother, hangs on the wall. The father tends a small, struggling olive tree that he keeps alive through a ritual of spraying water on it through his teeth.

It’s estimated that, during the first two June weeks of the Lebanon War, 14,000 people, mostly civilians, died in Beirut as a consequence of the invasion by Israel, after terrorist organization Abu Nidal made an assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador to the U.K.

On the very night that Fahed has returned home to Shatila, aerial strafing leads the father, grandfather and son to run out of their house. They can see explosions in the square and injured people stranded by the gunfire. The father, running to help, is killed instantly. As the grandfather cradles Fahed, Fahed breaks free to examine, stunned, his father’s bloodied body. At paramilitary training the next day, Fahed watches an Israeli jet fly over. He turns his machine gun skyward and actually hits the target, knocking plane and pilot out of the sky.

Fahed is given access to his trophy. The captured Israeli pilot, Yoni (stunningly portrayed by Stephen Dorff), enters the picture in full abjection, bound and gagged with a pillowcase over his head, his limbs terrifyingly askew on the cell floor, suffering from thirst and diarrhea.

The two actors do a riveting job at portraying the inverted conventions of authority when the boy suddenly controls the man. Fahed is practicing his rage at Yoni. Ahmed (Adham Abu Aqel), Fahed’s friend, is kinder to the prisoner, offering him a tin cup of water.

The film makes both small gestures and searing pictures to express how domesticity and “torture” indeed exist in very close proximity. It feels like torture to malinger from thirst or be deprived of the toilet, especially when the bars of the prison cell were just welded inside somebody’s dwelling.

Soon Fahed’s behavior becomes dangerous; he not only injures Yoni but leads his friend Ahmed into mortal danger. As Yoni lies in agony with a gunshot wound, Ahmed dies overnight in a makeshift hospital, cared for by his own mother, a Lebanese doctor.

Buddy movie begins now. In an angry pact, Fahed agrees to help Yoni escape in exchange for Yoni promising him a trip to his family village in Palestine, now Israel.

The quest seems as mythical as the symbolism of keys that enters into the movie at this stage — a heavy key Fahed wears on a chain around his neck, a key he “swallows” that could unlock Yoni’s handcuffs. Suddenly the two of them, on a perilous journey, are together in a terrifyingly sublime landscape. No sooner are we seduced by the view than we look down and see we are crossing an actual minefield.

The film here manages to convey what the news rarely does — the stunning vistas of a land that means “homeland,” “source,” to so many. The scenes are so beautiful that they haunt you with the magical realism of believing in the possible.

Director Riklis has said he considers it his “duty” to tell the story of his “region.” I haven’t seen his other movies, which include Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride, but find it interesting that a male reviewer writing for The Washington Post called the shift in emotional tone, when the relationship builds between the man and boy, “sentimental concerns.” Riklis has also said in interviews that Israel, his country, wasn’t ready for this movie yet. That’s too bad.

Zaytoun is a beautiful film of how the unexpected in human behavior can unlock deeper ways of learning to love. This ultimately suggests not that politics can be set aside, but that poetic filmmaking can turn a story of stark psychological traumas into an intensely moving journey that doesn’t resolve neatly, but concludes on the note that emotion has no borders.



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