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Lemon Tree - Eran Riklis interview

Eran Riklis directs Lemon Tree

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ERAN Riklis talks about making Lemon Tree, a film about a Palestinian widow who takes the Israeli Defence Minister to court to prevent the imminent uprooting of her lemon grove for security reasons.

He also discusses the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, why Israeli cinema is currently so strong internationally and his next project, about a Jewish basketball coach who is asked to manage the German national team…

Q. It would be easy to describe Lemon Tree as a purely political film. But at its heart, it’s about really personal issues…
Eran Riklis: It’s true. For me it was really about discussing or exposing the lives of people whose lives are really affected by politics and by politicians. Of course, I manipulate the story to my needs and my points of view but essentially it’s about presenting a canvas in which you can choose your own direction.

Q. And it’s a story about two lonely women?
Eran Riklis: Yes, when I started writing the synopsis I thought: “This is a story about a lemon tree… and there’s not much to say about a lemon tree!” [laughs] But then the next sentence was about the loneliness of people in the Middle East and especially about this woman and then her silent bond that’s created with this woman on the other side of the border. But I found that really interesting, the power that comes from these two women, and especially from Salma.

I found it [her power] incredible given that she is a lonely woman, and she is in many ways an oppressed woman, both from the Israeli side and from her own people. She’s part of a tradition that means that if you’re a widow that’s it, your life is over basically. But she rediscovers life through this struggle and then maybe the potential for romance with this young lawyer. But the question, ultimately, is does she have the courage on both fronts? Obviously, to protect her trees… yes, but in terms of protecting her own personal life, I doubt it.

Q. Another thing that’s striking about the story is that in an age when it’s so easy to communicate with each other using mobile phones and whatever, there’s an essential lack of communication that creates a much bigger problem…
Eran Riklis: Yes, and beyond the issues of loneliness and trees, the film is also about the fact that the first step in any kind of solution in the Middle East, or anywhere, is that people start listening, or talking and then listening as a result. It’s really about a lack of communication. We have all the means in every conceivable level but we don’t communicate.

I look at it on a very simple level and say to myself that most people in the Middle East at the moment, even if they are totally open-minded about possible peace, nobody does anything. It’s an age of indifference in a way. It’s like: “OK, terrible things are happening here, terrible things are happening there… forget it. We’ll keep on going for our own benefit.” The Israeli side, in particular, is becoming a very materialistic society, which is fine and I’m not complaining about that, but once there were big struggles about the issues of peace, or giving land back and all those burning issues. Now, it’s not even a topic in a way. It is, of course, as an under-current but people worry about the bills and other stuff.

Q. How is the film being perceived in Israel?
Eran Riklis: It’s difficult. The Syrian Bride, which was also not an easy film either, did very well in Israel and my distributor in Israel was a very conservative guy who loved this film and said: “It’s going to be a big hit as well, like The Syrian Bride.” So, we all got carried away and all hoped it would do well. But it was surprising that the audiences didn’t come to the cinema in general and the reviews were so-so. It was either described as being overly political or not enough in a strange way. It was almost like a lose-lose situation.

When I compare what happened to the film in Israel with what’s been happening to it world-wide, it’s like two different films. It’s very extreme. The film was a huge hit in France, and it’s a huge hit in places as remote as Brazil and Taiwan… so it’s odd. I can explain it on one level… it’s too close to home in some ways. But in the end, it’s about making films for the world… it’s not about regional filmmaking. If I go down to the Curzon Soho, for example, and see my film there, it looks very natural. So in that sense I don’t feel any hard feelings about the lack of success in Israel.

Q. And to a lot of people, it’s an empowering story and rather like the classic David and Goliath tale…
Eran Riklis: Yes, I think most Israelis who saw the film actually loved it. But I think a lot read that it was about a woman who takes the Israeli Minister of Defence to court… leave me alone.

Q. And yet the origins of the story stem from real-life incidences of people doing that?
Eran Riklis: Yes. It’s inspired by one specific story and also by probably 100,000 stories. The way it’s structured in Israel is that the Palestinians can go to court, which sounds nice in terms of a democratic society, but it’s not so easy to get a result and they’re not always so favourable. But in the end, my bottom line thinking about this was that if the whole conflict could be sorted out in court we’d all be lucky, whatever it is the judge decides.

Q. How do you see the situation developing in the Middle East at the moment? Are you hopeful? Are you political?
Eran Riklis: I’m not political in the sense of activity. My activity, I guess, are the films. I can’t really say if I’m worried or a bit optimistic. I think in a funny way I’m a little bit optimistic because even though nothing has really changed, and even though the governments keep changing and there’s always chaos in the Arab world because it’s not easy to cope with politically, for me it’s really interesting.

I had an incident six months ago… 35 years ago I was a soldier in the Israeli army and I was in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, stationed in the Sinai… the Egyptian side for six months. It was very traumatic for my generation because we were all 19-years-old and we were the generation worst hit by the war. There were a lot of dead people from my class. Six months ago, 35 years later, I was invited to Cairo to show The Syrian Bride, and I went to the airport, I boarded an Israeli airlines play, landed in Cairo 50 minutes later, showed the film, went around Cairo not hiding the fact I’m Israeli, had a really good time with no pressure or threat of anything. And I said to myself: “This is what it’s all about.” Within 35 years, peace has been welcomed. It’s a cold peace, a difficult one… the left in Egypt is actually the most opposed to Israel in a funny way. And yet there’s a peace. We can co-exist and that gives me a sense of optimism towards everything.

Q. Filmmakers seem to be looking at that region a lot lately. We’ve just seen Waltz With Bashir… Did that strike a nerve with you given that you served in the army?
Eran Riklis: Yes, it did. But it also suffered from the same fate of Lemon Tree in that it didn’t do well locally, but is doing fantastically well abroad. It’s interesting when you put Waltz With Bashir and Lemon Tree together, it’s really two different approaches to the same issue. Although Waltz… deals more with the Israeli psyche and sense of guilt in a way, and Lemon Tree is more about the same sense of guilt but told through the more immediate, current relationship with the Palestinians. So they’re both sides of the same coin I suppose.

Q. And on a vastly different scale, there’s a big Hollywood comedy such as You Don’t Mess With The Zohan… Have you seen that?
Eran Riklis: [Laughs] No, I haven’t. But I think people in America, especially… the perception of the Middle East is always through the CIA or those kinds of eyes. It’s never from the point of view of the people themselves. I think what Israeli filmmakers have is at least the ability to look at both sides. It’s to the credit of Israeli filmmakers that they can deal with both sides and not be condescending. So, I’m proud to be part of that group and I hope that more filmmakers like Ari [Folman, directort of Waltz With Bashir] and myself and a few others really make these kind of films. Not every one has to be about politics. But Israeli cinema can be really relevant to what’s going on, whether through political issues, social issues or both. It’s a good thing that’s happening to Israeli cinema right now.

Q. How did the success of The Syrian Bride change things for you and the way you were perceived internationally?
Eran Riklis: Well, the main thing it did was make the next film easier. It’s always about the next film. So, I think it opened doors. For me and a few other filmmakers, the doors of European co-production were opened. A normal Israeli film costs somewhere between $700 to 900,000. So, it means you can make films for two and a half, or $3 million, which changes your life in a sense that you have a little bit more comfort and time to make a film properly. I joined the European co-production scene as a director. Also, culturally it means something. There are fewer borders, in a way. I was able to shoot a film like Lemon Tree with a Swiss cameraman. In a funny way, it also makes me more ambitious because I can make bigger films. Everything is open, within the mid-range of budgets, and there are a lot of options.

Q. What is next for you?
Eran Riklis: I’ve got two films coming up. One is called The Mission of the Human Resources Manager, which is based on an Israeli book and it’s basically about a human resources manager from a big bakery in Jerusalem who is given the mission of taking back to Russia the body of a dead Russian worker, a woman, who died in an explosion in Jerusalem. In taking this journey back to a village somewhere in Siberia, it’s really a journey for him. It’s an interesting story.

The film after that is called Play-Off, which is a true life story. It’s about a very famous basketball coach from Israel who, in the late ’70s, was invited by Germany to come and coach their national team. Having said that, as a kid he was a Holocaust survivor and he lost his father in Germany. So, it’s about a Holocaust survivor coming back to Germany 30 years later to coach the national team. It was a very strange situation but he decided to do it. The film follows his first two months coping with that. The coach is a guy who won the European Championship twice with Maccabi Tel Aviv, which is like Manchester United in basketball terms. He was really a star and the fact that the Germans took him in was sensational at the time. It’s an interesting psychological journey given the complexities of the past and how things are changing.

Q. Have you cast that yet?
Eran Riklis: Not yet, but it’s kind of tricky because it’s basically an English speaking film. Part of the issue with this guy is that he says he has no past, so has no problem taking the job. But I also want him to speak some German. It means on a practical level, I can cast any British or American actor in their mid-40s. We’ll see.

Read our review of Lemon Tree