The Palestinian widow Salma Zidane lives alone in a humble concrete house. Her son lives in the US, her daughter lives with her family in another village. She hardly sees anyone apart from an old man who already helped her father tend the lemon trees behind the house. The lemon grove she has inherited from her father is her only possession, her only possibility to make a living. The grove is 5o years old, the trees are lush and green, very healthy and produce an abundance of intense yellow fruit. Salma enjoys walking through the rows of trees, to tend to them, water them, pick the fruit, make lemonade or pickle them. For 50 years the lemon grove has been the pride and joy of her family.
But Eran Rikli’s movie Lemon Tree is not about joy, it’s about conflict, a conflict that breaks out when the Israeli Minister of Defense moves into the villa next to Salma’s grove. Salma lives on the West Bank, the grove is located directly on the Israeli border. And what is life-enhancing for one person, becomes a threat for another. Fences are erected, control posts installed, security cameras attached everywhere, military patrols scheduled. Still, that doesn’t seem enough. Terrorists could hide under the trees. Bombs could be thrown.
When the Secret Service decides to have the grove torn down, Salma seeks help. She finds a young, idealistic lawyer who wants to help her. It takes months and months, to fight for the trees. Meanwhile the Israelis have erected a huge fence all around the grove and Salma isn’t allowed to enter it anymore. She has to watch helplessly how the healthy trees are dying.
The movie doesn’t only focus on the conflict but looks into the different relationships of the people involved. The minister’s wife and Salma often look at each other through the fence, each wondering how the other woman lives. The grove and the decision to have it destroyed lead to a lot of tension in the marriage of the minister and his wife. On the other side of the fence, Salma and Ziad the lawyer develop a friendship that could become more, if there weren’t the watchful eyes of the ever-present Palestinian elders.
Lemon Tree is a very subtle movie that sheds light on one of the hot spots in the Middle East. It doesn’t give any easy answers nor blame excessively. Both parties are trapped, trapped in their cultures, their languages, their fears. The fences and walls that are erected are symbols of this imprisonment as much as the lemon trees are a symbol of freedom and beauty. In the end there is no win-win but a loss-loss situation.
I was very moved by this movie and to a large extent this is also thanks to the great actors. Hiam Abbass as Salma and Ali Suliman as Ziad are outstanding. It’s certainly not a cheerful movie but an important one.
Lemon Tree is part of my World Cinema Series and a contribution to Richard’s Foreign Film Festival.