Director: Eran Riklis | 106 minutes | adventure, drama, thriller, war | Actors: Stephen Dorff, Abdallah El Akal, Alice Taglioni, Loai Nofi, Tarik Kopty, Johnny Arbid, Mira Awad, Eitan Londner, Morad Hassan, Ashraf Farah, Nidal Badameh, Adham Abu Aqel, Osamah Khoury, Michel Khoury
“Zaytoun” is set in civil war-torn Lebanon in 1982. Ten-year-old Palestinian boy Fahed (Abdallah El Akal) lives with his father and grandfather in a camp in the Lebanese capital Beirut. He imagines that he is Brazilian soccer hero Zico (and calls himself as such), plays soccer, goes to a UN school and has to attend combat training. His father lovingly tends to an olive tree in a pot, which he only wants to plant in the soil of “home” in disputed Palestinian territory.
Fahed’s life changes dramatically when an Israeli bombing raid (part of the invasion on June 6 of that year) kills his father. Fahed then only wants one thing: revenge. He is almost offered it on a silver platter when the Israeli fighter pilot Yoni (Stephen Dorff) is shot down over the city and taken prisoner. Fahed and his friends are given the (illogical) important task of guarding a prisoner of great value. Fahed underscores his hatred for the Israeli and everything he represents by shooting Yoni in the leg. But soon he sees a golden opportunity here: Yoni wants to escape and return to Israel, Fahed wants to go to the “home” of the glowing stories of his father to plant the olive tree there.
From that moment on, the film becomes a real “buddy movie” of two opposites who cannot air or see each other, but are forced to work together to survive. The film is of course permeated with a war situation in Lebanon itself and the long-running conflict in the Middle East, but otherwise hardly plays a role in a geopolitical sense, nor does it address the complicated political situation. Some prior knowledge of what exactly happened in Lebanon is useful, also to be able to interpret Israel’s intervention and the role of both the UN and the PLO. However, the gist is pretty simple. Yoni unwillingly becomes some sort of surrogate father to Fahed. However, their journey is not without its dangers and the threat is constant. Nowhere is really safe for a wounded Israeli soldier, although the duo is helped in the beginning by a taxi driver with dollar signs in his eyes. It delivers the most comical and surreal scene in the film, as Yoni and Fahed sit in the backseat and the driver drives around with true death contempt, playing the Bee Gees ” Stayin ‘Alive’ music to the bone.
It is a light-hearted moment that is sparse in the rest of the film. Yet despite all the apparent hopelessness and misery, “Zaytoun” never really lapses into gloom. Director Eran Riklis has a central message of optimism and hope. That somewhat undermines the tension of the perilous adventures that Yoni and Fahed experience on their way to their own experience of freedom. It is a shame that Nader Rizq’s screenplay sometimes takes the easiest route (figuratively speaking), by stretching the unlikely premise to the limit. The film occasionally balances on the verge of credibility, but Riklis keeps pulling the reins just in time.
The main flaw of “Zaytoun”, however, is the forced sentimentality. It is too obvious when you as a viewer are expected to empathize with the characters and when you should get a lump in your throat. Apparently, the makers do not trust that the viewers will not take the desired message out of the context of the story and they express this far too emphatically. In practice, this appears to lead to emotion, but then that of irritation. “Zaytoun” would be a lot easier to digest if the makers were more restrained.
It is certainly not the fault of the main characters: both Dorff and El Akal make the most of their division of roles as “opposites”. Dorff’s accent occasionally limps like the rest of Yoni does, but he plays a strong part. It is the young El Akal who here shows his great talent as an actor. He never falls into a caricature – even if the script gives him little more than clichés – and knows how to see an enormous array of (conflicting) emotions in his non-verbal communication. His performance is the driving force of the film and the chemistry between El Akal and Dorff is what gives the film a third star in the rating.
It is not explicitly stated in the film, but the title “Zaytoun” is Arabic for olive. This of course not only refers to the tree that Fahed carries with him, but also symbolizes peace and reconciliation.