By Laksiri Fernando –
Soon after I sent my last review article on “A Good American” emphasising the resolve of Jette (the feminist conscience in the story) against ‘violence and war’ perpetrated largely by men in society, I had the pleasing opportunity to watch the movie, the “Lemon Tree” on the same theme. If Alex George’s book is an ensemble of many things, apart from the ‘feminist conscience,’ the latter is the main theme of the “Lemon Tree,” directed by Eran Riklis and written with Suha Arraf.
Of course it is an exposure of the ongoing subtle suppression of the Palestinian rights by the Israeli authorities or occupiers, apart from direct war or violence. But the resistance comes from the feminist resolve for survival, and in solidarity, transcending the ethnic or racial barriers. That may be the reason why the face of Salma instantly reminded me the image of Jette, which I have never seen.
The movie does not show the war or violence directly except few soldiers and one minor explosion at the Defence Minister’s residence. Yet, the war and violence are there and continue, hidden and subtle, eating into everyone’s life and especially the Palestinians. The story may be common to many places of conflict or post-conflict, especially to the militarized situation in the North and the East of Sri Lanka. And that is the very reason to relate this story or review the movie.
Salman Zidane, a Palestinian widow of middle age, lives a quiet life, mending her lemon grove which is her only source of income apart from few dollars sent by her son in Washington once in a while. He works as a kitchen helper. Two daughters are married and living away. She is helped by Abu who has served the family since Salman’s father’s time and who believes that trees are living creatures and ‘have souls.’ Whether Salman has the same conviction or not, she is extremely attached to the lemon trees and that is her life.
The new Defence Minister of Israel, its name sake Israel (Navon), comes to live next door, on the other side of the ‘Green Line’ which divides the West Bank from Israel. Salman was not concerned. But one day, she receives a letter in Hebrew, she cannot understand, like Tamils receiving letters in Sinhala, ordering that the lemon grove should go; promising her compensation instead.
She is angry; does not agree with the order. First she goes to the Palestinian Authorities but to no avail or sympathy. It is simply not a major political issue for them. Then she asks the young Attorney, Ziad Daud, to appeal the order. First it goes to the Military Court which upholds the decision citing ‘security of the state’ and decision to give compensation. The argument is that the lemon grove can be used for sniper or terrorist attack, a typical of many defence rulings.
Salman is depressed but wanted to further appeal to the Supreme Court of Israel. Her son, Nasser, is worried and wanted her to give up the case and come to America. Attorney is hesitant but agrees to fight the case. An intimacy develops between Salman and Ziad which leads to some gossip in the neighbourhood. Salman is unconcerned or helpless given her lonely circumstances.
When the Military Court dismisses the appeal, it orders to build a security fence around the lemon grove until the Supreme Court settles the case. Even before, Mira Navon, the Minister’s wife, comes to know about the ‘controversy.’
When she questions her husband, he denies the direct involvement of the order saying that it was a security decision of the intelligence division. Mira however points out that “you’re the Minister” to which he smiles like many other men. When he informs her that the case has been appealed to the Supreme Court, she firmly says, “I would have done the same.”
There is an evolving empathy for Salman on the part of Mira. There is eye contact between the two women ‘across the fence.’
Many a time, Salman defies the security fence to collect lemon and mostly to water the trees. She climbs the fence as Mira watches with sympathy. Even the ‘Speedy’ cannot stop her. ‘Speedy’ is the self-attributed name of the soldier, Itama, posted at the security post. Mira observes the saga from her balcony, always with a smile; after all its Salman’s property. The film also has humour through Speedy who takes a hilarious psychometric test every morning loudly.
A near breakthrough in the case comes when an Israeli woman journalist (Tamar or Shelly, I have missed the name) intervenes and exposes the absurdity of the ‘order’ by interviewing the Defence Minister, his wife Mira and of course Salman. The Minister, ‘off the record’ says “I sympathise,” but “on the record” upholds that “lemon trees are a security threat.”
Mira was forthright when she was interviewed. By the time her relations with her husband have strained by realising that he has been cheating on her. The interview with Salman is more profound, the journalist visiting her humble abode and revealing her true story and the pain she has been undergoing; no exaggeration or misrepresentation. The whole film shows what a marvellous job that the journalists (females in particular) could do in defending human rights.
The Supreme Court verdict however is ambiguous or controversial. The Attorney argues on the basis of Geneva Conventions and accordingly ‘occupier cannot take over property.’ But the defence points out that it is ‘except for security reasons’! The decision is something in between. The decision is not to touch the property or not to uproot the trees. For the Attorney, it is a victory for the Palestinian rights. He gives a press interview.
Salman leaves the Court before the end; extremely disappointed. She is shown in the ‘grove,’ like a ‘grave,’ roaming around looking gravely sad. All lemon trees are cut to the knee height and no leaves. That was the ‘victory.’ The film ends, Mira leaving her husband, the Minister of Defence.
Like in real life, all the decision makers in the film are men. All the victims are women; the defence or resistance against the violation comes mainly from women, except for Abu and Ziad. Palestinian (male) neighbours are more concerned about ‘gossip’ rather than Salman’s plight. The feminist aspect of the film can be an exaggeration, but contains some truth. This is where I wish to go back to my last review of “A Good American” and one of its central characters, Jette.
As I said previously, “Jette thought of her grandfather, directing her troops to slaughter from the safety of his ridiculous balloon” and thought “Men would repeat the same stupid mistake again and again.”
Her sentiment was not for one war but for all wars, including Israel-Palestine war or Sri Lanka. She also said “Men would never curb their lust for blood.” As for me, I have known and seen even some women also with lust for power, authority or violence, but definitely less than men. Jette concluded, “So then, the salvation of the human race lay in the hands of women.” She might not be completely correct here. But she was correct saying,
“Mothers should not send their children off to die.”
The following morning, Jette made a placard out of a large piece of wood. Dressed in widows of mourning (black, but it can be white) she went on to the streets. On it was the phrase:
SAVE OUR CHILDREN, NO MORE WAR.
We should add OR VIOLENCE also to the placard.
(‘Lemon Tree’ with the initial title ‘Etz Limon’ in Hebrew is a real life movie produced in 2008 and has been shown in over 50 countries with subtitles so far. It can be rated four stars and a must for Sri Lankan viewers whenever possible)