“Zaytoun” is a well-made film that tells the touching story of two people who learn to find commonality and camaraderie in a situation that had first forced them to hate. The film, made in Israel, is adapted from a screenplay written by Palestinian-American Nader Rizq and directed by Israeli Eran Riklis. Frank about the harsh behavior and suffering engendered by war, the film begins with scenes of Beirut as tension and violence are on the rise before the First Lebanon War. When Israeli fighter pilot Yoni’s plane is shot down, he is captured by PLO militants who have been running a military training camp for recruited youth. When Fahed, a young boy at the camp, seems to have miraculously “shot down” Yoni’s plane, he becomes involved with watching over the new prisoner. Elated at the chance to avenge his father’s recent death in an air raid, Fahed shoots the Israeli prisoner in his cell, wounding him. However, when he realizes that Yoni is his chance to get back to the legendary “Falastin,” Fahed makes a deal with the so-detested prisoner to get them back to the land they each long for.
On their journey to the border, the two begin to understand each other as more than just antagonists; they symbolically split a piece of gum as they come to realize forgiveness and compromise, and ultimately make a journey together to the old house of Fahed’s family, where Fahed plants his father’s beloved olive tree (“zaytoun” in Arabic) on the land.
Although slightly overdramatized, somewhat unrealistic and lacking in substantial discussion about the plot’s larger context, the meaning of the film is not diminished. In fact, these attributes are the film’s strongest assets: because “Zaytoun” focuses on the interpersonal aspect of Yoni and Fahed’s story to the exclusion of substantive contextual detail, the film is relatively non-judgmental about the larger conflict in which the story is set — uncommon in artistic production on this subject. In fact, the film’s limited scope leads not only to a more profound narrative impact, but also a fairer depiction of the story’s setting as one in which there are two sides of humanity and suffering.
In all, the film communicates a tender and nuanced human experience that emphasizes innate humanity and the ability of people to overcome learned hate as they realize it is possible to forgive, compromise, and move forward. Beyond this, it also makes a fundamental point about the connection of different people to the same land, namely, that whether it be an immediate history — as to a family’s old house — or an ancient and fundamental one, each has his connection to the land and a love and desire for “home.” And on that front, both Yoni and Fahed are fellows with a common love for the same land and an equal desire to plant roots there. The fact that they manage it together makes the story of “Zaytoun” even more poignant.