Zaytoun brings Middle East enemies together

A cloudy but sizzling April morning in the Israeli port of Haifa. This is a harmonious corner of a country that’s not famous for harmony, but you wouldn’t know it from the jeep full of AK-47-toting soldiers racing around a corner, or the motorbike rider with a rocket launcher slung over his shoulder. A Steadicam crew tracks past them into a street market, following an Arab boy as he weaves past a coriander vendor and a man flogging shoes from the boot of a car. Welcome to Beirut, circa 1982.

This is the ambitious, two-minute opening shot of Zaytoun, the story of an Israeli fighter pilot (Stephen Dorff) who is shot down over hostile Lebanon and has to find his way to the border in the at first equally hostile company of a teenage Palestinian refugee (Abdallah El Akal). The first product of a new UK-Israeli film treaty, which aims to share talent and resources between the two countries, it’s being billed as a cross between City of God and Slumdog Millionaire. This Haifa backstreet is doubling for Martyrs’ Square in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, and all the details are on the money, from the period cars to the retro Brazil shirts worn by the street kids.
It’s a rum concept: a film set in Lebanon, shot in Israel, financed via Britain and France and with a crew that bridges some hefty cultural divides. “It’s a real madhouse,” smiles

Eran Riklis, the ursine, charismatic director. Some are Jewish Israeli, like him, but there is also a contingent of Arab Israelis, a writer from the West Bank, a Danish cinematographer, a British producer (Gareth Unwin) and an American star, Dorff (Backbeat, Blade). The latter two are hot properties: Dorff’s performance in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere applied jump leads to what had become a listless career, while Unwin is fresh from winning an Academy Award for The King’s Speech, the most successful British independent film bar none.

This is a long way from the Oscars, where Unwin danced with Anne Hathaway to Don’t Stop Believin’ at an afterparty. But, having had their “taste vindicated” by The King’s Speech, he and his partner Simon Egan were looking for “something a bit different”.
He found it in a script by Nader Rizq, a first-time Palestinian writer. Unwin asked one of his staff to read it. “I just needed Nero’s thumb: good or bad.” The thumb went skywards — it was the best thing they had been sent in two years. Unwin read it next to his fiancée in bed: “I woke her up three times — the first through laughter, the second two through tears.”

Israeli director plus Palestinian writer equals balanced script, Riklis thinks, although “we’ve had some fights”. Everyone emphasises what a personal, human story Zaytoun [Arabic for olive] is. Just as well, given the incendiary complexity of the war in Lebanon. “There’s Palestinians, Muslim militia who hate Palestinians even though they’re Muslims, Christian militia who hate both, Israelis across the border,” says Riklis. “Go figure which militia is which and who’s shooting at who. But you don’t have to have a lot of knowledge about the region to understand this film.”
Productions here tend to have all-Jewish crews but, Riklis says, “it’s fair when you’re dealing with this kind of subject to involve people who are less exposed to working on Israeli films. If the world was running as well as this crew, it would be a perfect world.” Outsiders tread on eggshells but there is much banter on set, Unwin says. One of the Arab child actors found a rock that he thought was the shape of Palestine: “An Israeli kid grabbed it and they had this tug of love. It was all done with humour.”

Riklis is seen as one of Israel’s most humane directors, having populated films such as Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride with nuanced Arab and Jewish characters. “He’s one of the few non-Arabs who presents Palestinians as humans,” Rizq says. “I watched his films and said: ‘I recognise these people — that could be my uncle, my grandmother.’”

That reputation for authenticity is about to tested by the decision to cast an American, Dorff, as an Israeli, one motivated by the demands of international marketing. They fudged things slightly by having 70 per cent of the dialogue in English, the common language of the pilot and the Palestinian boy, and Dorff’s Israeli accent is apparently coming on a treat.

The actor, lounging sleepily in his posh hotel on top of the hill, certainly doesn’t seem fazed by the task. His father is actually Jewish although the Dorff household wasn’t a religious one. “I just wish I’d had a barmitzvah,” he smiles; then he might not have needed a Hebrew coach for the non-English scenes. At heart, he says, this is a buddy movie: “You’re trained to hate but if you’re stuck together . . . it’s like Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Rizq’s script had slightly loftier inspirations: Cry Freedom, The Killing Fields, Dances With Wolves, “movies that identify a grander problem through a specific story”. It occurred to him that nobody had made a good, non-documentary movie about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The difference is that this region is still in a state of flux. As preparation for his role, Dorff visited an airforce base near Gaza. “One of the pilots said: ‘If the alarm goes I’ll have to be in the air in five minutes.’”

While Dorff and Riklis praise the vitality of Israel, the director notes that “a few minutes from here you have over a million who can barely live and that cannot go on for ever.” Rizq, who now lives in Florida, noticed a big change when he visited family in the West Bank in 2008. “They built these big walls round the Palestinian areas and hemmed them in so it was like an outdoor prison.” When he visited the Zaytoun set it took three days to get him into the country.

Israel has a history of “mistakes, not admitting mistakes”, Riklis says. “But what I try to do is let you think and rethink before deciding if these guys are good or bad.” He thinks the best solution for the region is a two-state system, but Rizq insists that nothing will work until “people are treated equally. But what is the motivation for Israel to do that? It doesn’t make me angry; it’s more frustrating. What can you do that’s productive? Maybe this movie will make a difference.”
Zaytoun is released in spring 2013