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Web Exclusive: A Review of Lemon Tree

Judith Mahoney Pasternak May 14, 2009

Lemon Tree (Etz Limon)
Directed by Eran Riklis
(In Arabic and Hebrew)
Eran Riklis Productions, Israeli Ministry of Education and Sport, et al., 2008

Not far from Ramallah, in Occupied Palestine, is the lemon grove of Salma Zidane, where the heady fragrance of a thousand lemons, ripe and ready for picking, fills the air. Salma (Hiam Abbass) and her aged helper Abu Hussam (Tarik Kopty) look after the grove.

Salma has had what she calls her “share of grief.” Her husband is dead, leaving her a not-yet-middle-aged widow, in a culture in which a widow is expected to remain a faithful wife. Her son is far away in the United States. She accepts those losses stoically, uncritically, almost mutely, as she accepts the fact that her lemon grove is in the West Bank, nominally Palestinian territory, but occupied by the State of Israel since 1967. Her bonds now are with the lemon trees and with Abu, who has known her all her life, and who worked in the grove when her father was alive.

But a new owner moves into the house on the other side of the grove, and everything changes. Salma’s lemon grove sits on one side of the “Green Line,” the border between the State of Israel and the Occupied Territory. The house across the way is on the other side; its new owner is Israel Navon (Doron Tavory), the State of Israel’s Minister of Defense; and Lemon Tree is the poignant story of what happens when the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) decides that the lemon trees pose a threat to Israeli security and must be cut down.

It is one loss Salma cannot accept. She goes to Ramallah, the capital city of Occupied Palestine, to find a lawyer, traveling by taxi, because taxis are the Palestinian vehicles with the best chances of clearing IDF check points. She finds a lawyer, the young, divorced Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman). He takes her case, and then, moved by her strength, her courage, and her stark beauty, falls in love with her, despite their nearly 20-year age difference. She in turn, is moved by his dedication to saving her grove. Scandalously, they become lovers; a senior member of the Palestinian government comes to warn Salma to end the affair.

Meanwhile, the lemon tree case is escalating. Soldiers fire into the lemon trees, afraid that “terrorists” are “infiltrating Israel” through the grove. The case reaches Israel’s Supreme Court—and the media. And across from Salma’s lemon grove, Mira Navon (Rona Lipaz-Michael), the wife of the Defense Minister, begins for the first time in her marriage to disapprove of her husband’s actions — and to feel a bond with the woman across the way.

Made in Israel, Lemon Tree is astonishingly rich in the details of a Palestinian woman’s life under occupation. Late in the movie, the “Separation Wall” — the eight-meter-high concrete wall snaking along the Palestinian side of the Green Line — makes an appearance, highlighting the fundamental brutality of the occupation.

Yet there is no sermonizing in Lemon Tree, only a deeply touching drama of courage and determination, carried in large measure by the towering, fierce performance of Hiam Abbass as Salma. Doron Tavory is her perfect foil as the Minister of Defense who would prefer not to be cruel or callous, but who doesn’t hesitate to follow the lead of his Defense Forces regarding the lemon trees.

There’s also no explicit violence in this movie. But be warned: If you have a heart, the final fate of the lemon grove will break it.

© Judith Mahoney Pasternak, 2009

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