Instant scepticism is usually the response to celluloid suggestions that a cute kid with a winning smile can ease the ills of the world. Since this latest from Israeli director Eran Riklis (‘Lemon Tree’) posits a cautious rapprochement between a young Palestinian from a Beirut refugee camp and a downed Israeli pilot desperate to reach the border, it faces an uphill battle to convince the cynics. There’s certainly something of a feelgood fable about a story like this, yet ‘Zaytoun’ works hard for its credibility by insisting that both parties share the same goal – they want to go home.
Yoni the airman (Stephen Dorff, not overdoing the Israeli accent) is awaiting the birth of his first child, but for travelling companion Fahed (Abdallah El Akal, likable yet never cloying) his one-shot chance to head south means fulfilling his father’s dream of planting a stripling olive tree on the land their family lost during the founding of Israel. Poignantly, the title means ‘Olive’ in Arabic.
As in ‘Waltz with Bashir’, setting the drama during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon significantly ups the stakes, while the convincing recreation of war-torn Beirut helps draw us into the drama, weighing Fahed’s anger at Israeli air force destruction against his day-to-day fear of gun-toting Christian Phalangists picking off innocent Palestinians. Finding any kind of humanity amidst all this is a tall order, yet with a little humour, plenty of tension and willing performers, the assured Riklis turns in an effective, accessible picture never dewy-eyed about the wider political picture but firm in the belief that hope begins with individual decency.