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Of Trees and Neighbors

Lemon Tree, dir. Eran Riklis, Now Playing

A pine is standing lonely
In the North on a bare plateau.
He sleeps; a blank white blanket,
Enshrouds him in ice and snow.

He's dreaming of a palm tree
Far away in the Eastern land.
Lonely and silently mourning
On a sunburnt rocky strand.

--Heinrich Heine, Book of Songs, Lyrical Intermezzo, 33, translated by Hal Draper

With its central image, Lemon Tree evokes the roots of a nation: its soil, its rural heritage, its ancestors and the connection between its past and future. As the heroine Salma and the old worker of her family insist, trees, like human beings, have lives, feeling, and dignity. The lemon grove, tended by her father for fifty years, links Salma with the memory of her natural connection with a sun-drenched but now threatened and lost homeland. On the other side of the border, the Israeli Defense Minister also remembers his father as a farmer-soldier who cherished trees as his hair. The reality outside the grove, however, presents a radical contrast to these cherished memories and dreams. The opening sequence crosscuts between close-ups of Salma's female hands cutting juicy lemons and red peppers, and a white truck driving along a winding, fully-fenced, and still-in-construction Separation Wall. Later in the film, the same wall would abruptly interrupt Salma's sweet dream of youth and preoccupy the Defense Minister's work and speech. The West Bank territory consists of road blocks, checkpoints, desolate streets with shabby houses around refugee camps, and the cramped, messy office of a young Islamic lawyer who is to help Salma save her trees. As the Arabs wind their way through daily frustrations of ID checks, house searches and curfews, the Jews also live in insecurity. Their worst dream comes true when a bombing attack interrupts the toast and singing on a housewarming party, leaving the joyous song “All is possible as long as we sing” a poignant note.

Where should the birds fly © Eran Riklis/IFC Films
Where should the birds fly © Eran Riklis/IFC Films

The story of the disappearance of a complete, harmonious space is Mr. Riklis’ answer to a long tradition in Palestinian film and literature in which a homogeneous landscape substitute and help construct a unified national identity and history. In particular, lemon or orange groves or olive trees are recurrent symbols to give concrete form to an intangible sense of place that is under threat. As Barbara McKean Parmenter notes in Giving Voices to Stones: Place and Identity in Palestinian Literature, in post-1948 Palestine literature, the olive tree often serves as a symbol for “communal rootedness, identity, and resistance.” Mr. Riklis' film enriches this often sexual-political symbolism with a concrete feminine touch. Salma's lemons are first of all used for food and the lemonade she serves her guests. Some of the most tender moments of the film—as when Salma carefully dries the Defense Minister's letter over the stove, or when she takes out her cherished bridal jewelry from a feather pillow and tries them on in front of the mirror—connect the safe private space and meaningful daily rituals with feminine qualities.

Unlike many other works in this tradition, however, this film does not present the grove as some nostalgic image but locates it right at the present and at the Green Line separating Israel and Palestine. In doing so it links the central image with another emblem of Palestinian space and identity—the border. In a perspective essay Nurith Gertz and George Khleifi describe the difficulties for the Palestinian cinema in the 1990s and 2000s “both to create and to deconstruct a whole imaginary map”: “the public space is blocked, the private space is missing or destroyed, and the only place left intact is the border.” In Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention (2002), since the protagonist lives in Jerusalem and his girlfriend in Ramallah, they can only meet at the roadblock between the two places, where they hold hands and look at each other. In Mr. Riklis' last work The Syrian Bride (2004), the border-crossing between Israel and Syria is a trip loaded with unexpected difficulty and no hope to return, where various political, cultural, and generational conflicts evolve around.

In combining the two traditions, Lemon Tree enriches and deconstructs the grove's significance as national symbol. It can no longer remain a safe haven taken out of context to be fetishized by freeze frames, repetitions of the same shot, or slow motion, but becomes the center of conflicts that, just like the Green Line it finds itself on, separates as well as connects the two sides of the border. This is especially shown in the subtle relationship between Salma and Mira, the Defense Minister's wife. In the Israeli/Palestinian version of “the personal is the political,” both women find their family broken apart, their private space invaded, their actions under the gaze of ubiquitous patriarchal authority, and their struggle to save their homes or to be a “good neighbor, normal neighbor” put them against an army and a nation. The lemonade Salma offers her guests gradually loses its ritualistic, life-affirming overtone. The last time when an Israeli journalist tastes the drink, Salma's home has been searched and destroyed by Israeli soldiers following the bomber attack. With the lemon grove becoming a forbidden zone and Salma's home destroyed, the Defense Minister's home also appears increasingly like a high-tech prison. In their parallel stories, in their encounters rendered by shots and reverse shots, the two women, like Heine's pine and palm trees, see themselves in each other in a shared sense of loneliness and displacement.

Talking of his inspiration, Mr. Riklis cites the political films of the 1970s and ‘80s and especially Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937). The later is especially about borders, as illuminated by Stanley Cavell's insight:

[The border] is not on earth or in heaven, but whether you are known to have crossed it is a matter of life and death. The movie is about borders, about the life lines of life and death between German and Frenchman, . . . between home and absence, between Gentile and Jew. Specifically, it is about the illusions of borders, the illusion that they are real and the grand illusion that they are not.

In the case of Israel and Palestine, the border is also between native and refugee, homeland and displacement. In Lemon Tree, the illusion of the border is reinforced by the Israeli TV broadcast, the various speeches, announcements and press conferences throughout the film, as well as the watchtower and the surveillance camera closely monitoring the action on both sides of the grove. It is challenged and almost ridiculed, on the other hand, by the half-relevant, half-absurd psychometric questions with which Private Quickie fills the air from high above—an unintentional counterpart to the official discourse. Despite this, however, the film ends on the tragic note about borders and border-crossing. When a miraculous shot in the last sequence finally crosses the fence to connect both sides of the border, what they share is only a barren landscape and a sense of loss.


Lu Chen

LU CHEN is a contributor to the Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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