“I really tried to avoid sentiment,” “Lemon Tree” director Eran Riklis told indieWIRE about his work on the film. “The story itself is almost too symbolic too bear. It’s like, there’s this woman on one side and this woman on the other side, and a man in the middle… It’s like, give me a break. So I think what I tried to do was say, ‘okay, the essence of the story is clear and the headline is clear, so let’s go beyond that and try and see people involved.'”
“Tree” follows the true story of Salma (Hiam Abbass), a Palestinian widow who is forced to stand up against her neighbour, the Israeli Defense Minister, when he moves in to a house opposite her lemon grove, which happens to sit on the green line border between Israel and the West Bank. Israeli security forces suggest that her lemon trees pose a threat to the Minister, and order her to uproot them. Salma hires a young Palestinian lawyer who helps her go all the way to Israeli Supreme Court to save the trees. She also gains the empathy of the Defense Minister’s wife, who leads a horribly lonely life.
“I came across [the story] while looking for ideas on the web,” Riklis said earlier this week. “A woman went to court against the Ministry of Defense in Israel. And when I read these two lines about the story, I said, ‘hey, this is too good to be true.’ It had all the basic ingredients – dramatically, politically, socially… Truth is – and I’m not saying it wrote itself – but it was a very easy development phase. Just because the story flowed and I felt very comfortable with it.”
Based in Israel, Riklis has been working as filmmaker since the 1970s, and “Lemon Tree” is his seventh feature film (and follow up to his acclaimed 2004 “The Syrian Bride”). His recent work has been forced to find financing outside of Israel, which he notes is “is part of the game in Israel now.” “If you want to make a film beyond the normal Israeli budget – which is pretty low – you have to work with Europe,” he said. “And so far, it’s a good solution.”
Riklis has seen much change in his three decades of work in the Israel film industry. “The Israeli [film] industry has had its ups and downs,” he explained. “In the 1970s, and some of the 1980s, film was still a big thing in terms of the audience going to the cinema. There was a big drop in the 1990s when more and more television was produced… Cable, satellite, all that… But I think in the past five years, the audience is going back to the cinema. And I think it’s part of a worldwide trend. Despite piracy, despite DVD and the huge choice of films on television, I think the cinematic experience is still something people want to enjoy. In Israel, I think part of it is that Israeli cinema has found the local audience. And the other part is that Israeli films, contrary to many years go, now have an international audience. I think every year you see between 3 and 5 good Israeli films get proper distribution worldwide.”
One of 2009’s examples is “Lemon Tree” itself, which Riklis pitched just over three years ago at a co-production meeting at the Berlin Film Festival (where “Tree” would have its world premiere in 2008), based on just two pages that he had written.
“They said, ‘great pitch, now where’s the script,'” Riklis laughed. “I told them I’d send it to them after the festival… and I was basically lying. So I sat down with my co-writer [Suha Arraf] for like three months and by mid-2006 we had a script, and by mid-2007 we were shooting.”
Riklis’ main interest was not the politics of the story, or even the social elements of it. “It’s really about the people involved and how they are affected by politics,” he said. “For me, it was all about Salma and her loneliness and her solitude and her struggle. And on the other side of the border, this Israeli woman and her loneliness and her solitude. I think it’s really a film about loneliness.”
He also wanted to ensure the film possessed a certain authenticity. “I had to make it real, but on the other hand, not make it offensive to my own people, so to speak. And yet, I had to make no compromises. I just wanted to tell the truth.”
“Lemon Tree” is being released by IFC Films this Friday, April 17, in New York City, with a national expansion to follow. For an exclusive clip of the film, click here.