Friday, April 17, 2009

LEMON TREE -- and an interview with writer/director Eran Riklis

Israeli writer/director Eran Riklis' Lemon Tree opens today in New York. Though I covered it at length for GreenCine when it made its American debut during the FSLC's Israel @60 festival, I jumped at the chance to meet the moviemaker for a short one-on-one. Of all the directors, actors and film people I've interviewed so far, Mr. Riklis -- when first I heard him speak at Lincoln Center and again at our sit-down earlier

this week at the Soho Grand Hotel -- seems by far the most accessible, genuine and self-assured.

His just-folk personality appears to spill over into his movies, too -- at least the two I have seen and enjoyed enormously: The Syrian Bride (2004) and Lemon Tree (2008). The former is a wonderfully vital "family" film with political over/undertones about a wedding that may or may not occur, and the latter offers a kind of metaphor about the Israeli/Palestine conflict ("What Palestine? Show me its borders?!" I jest, but I am growing awfully tired of hearing this particular argument), with the violence always threatening but thankfully remaining just out of reach. The film tells what happens when the Israeli Defense Minister moves his family into a home next door to a lemon grove owned by a Palestinian woman, and then -- for security reasons, of course -- demands that the grove be chopped down. The story, based I believe on an actual happening, make prime fodder for both sides and allows the viewer to experience the it all. Hiam Abbass in the role of the lemon farmer -- she was also the young immigrant's mother in last year's The Visitor -- gives a rich performance that captures us without any special pleading or sentimentality.

Lemon Tree opens today at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center.

I arrive a bit tardy for my interview and make apologies to the gracious Mr. Riklis:

Sorry to be late, but I just came from interviewing Paolo Sorrentino, and his interviews were running late. Have you seen Il Divo yet? What a fabulous movie!

No, not yet, but I met both the Il Divo and Gomorrah guys at the European Academy Awards They were sitting right next to each other and there was very much competition between those two films.

Yes, and they both ended up winning something.

It's funny -- because I just got an email this morning from somebody in Italy telling me that Lemon Tree has been nominated for Best Foreign Film in the Italian David di Donatello Awards.

No kidding? That is great! You had said during the Q&A after the Lemon Tree screening during the FSLC's Israel @ 60 festival that the film, though not successful in Israel, had been very popular practically everywhere else it has screened in the world.

Yes. And even though they opened Lemon Tree in Italy during the Christmas season (Ed's note: this is not what anyone would call a Christmasy film) it was a huge hit there. It really has done well everywhere else. In South America-- in Brazil it has been running for seven months! But in Israel, unfortunately not. Well, as I said at Lincoln Center it is always nice for me to have a winner on the home court, but on the other hand, it is very nice to have something that works around the world

That's one of the reasons I love films so much, especially foreign films, is that we Americans, if we're interested, can keep in touch with what is happening all over the world. And not like a current event that you see in the newscast . But what is happening inside Israel in more subtle ways. Good filmmakers are more interested in what is happening with the people of their country and what their country is feeling and doing -- as you were with Lemon Tree and Syrian Bride -- which was a more feel-good movie. Was that one a hit in Israel?

Yes, and not just because it was more feel good, as you say. But also because it I not so Palestinian. For the average Israeli the world Palestinian is more threatening. But the dreams of an obscure community on the border was somehow less of a threat.

In my mind I thought that those people were Palestinian.

Well, they are Druze, and perhaps in some way this puts them on the same level as Palestinians. They are Islamic and have a secretive religion, and they are split between Israel, Syria and Lebanon. Those who live in Israel actually must serve in the Israeli army.

One of the things you said during Israel @ 60 that I was particularly impressed with was that there is no censorship of filmmakers in Israel: No matter how critical the filmmaker might be of Israeli actions or policy.

It's true, and for me, it is, you know, almost like a non-question. Because it is a free country. I never had a feeling of a problem about this, or a feeling that, by accepting the funding from the government, that I had to do or change anything. After all, all many of the major governments of Europe have also invested in my films and in other, and if they are doing it, then why should Israel not?! We got major funding from Germany and France and major television outlets in Europe. So how can Israel say no when a film has already gotten that kind of support? Lemon Tree was basically pre-financed by French and German television, German regional funds, the film board of France, and so on.

Also, a good script is a good script, and a bad script a bad script. I think when you come up with a creditable director and a good script people just don't say no.

You wrote the script, right, so of course you know it's a good script!

From the institutional Israeli perspective, I am not considered a... you know, an extreme left-wing filmmaker. So over the years, I think I have managed to put myself into sort of a mainstream position and am able to do what I want to do. You can't argue so much when a film is a success worldwide. That’s a good position to be in.

I try to see as many Israeli film as I can, but still, I don't see that many. Yet I would say that every film I do I see from Israel seems to be a critique of Israel -- including your films.

I think it is about being honest. As long as you criticize with honesty and show the truth -- well, whatever the truth is…

It's sometimes hard to know.

Yes, it is hard to know. But I think that if you repect even that, that there is no one truth, or one "right"…. I really try very hard to do that, without being, on the other hand, politically correct, because that also is kind of boring.

In Lemon Tree, you let us see several sides and even sides within a side -- how people feel about it all. And you embrace all of those sides yet we still come down on the side of the lemon trees and the orchard. What do you think of the new Benjamin Netanyahu presidency? Is going to be more or less right-wing that he was before?

Well, I can't say that I like the guy… On the other hand, he's a smart guy. I have to give him credit because in this day and age, when you have Obama as President over here, it is clear that the world is shifting in so many directions…. I don't think that Israel can any longer say that "Well, we are going to just stick with our old impassioned ideas!" With what is happening the world, you have to keep being up- to date, being realistic about what is happening. This constant war, it just cannot keep going on forever. (He pauses a moment) Well, of course it has been going on forever….

Do you really think it can't go on forever? I used to wonder about that. And it seemed like it would. But then I also used to think that the fighting between Ireland and Britain would go on forever, but that has changed and gotten better.

Exactly. It's like the old "Never say never." In a strange way, despite recent events in Gaza and everything, I am pretty optimistic that things will get better, despite what has happened under certain American Presidents. People in the end, in a modern world, I think there is always hope of bridging the gaps.

I hope you're right. I haven't heard anyone say this for awhile.

It's funny, because when I was first writing Lemon Tree, I felt very bitter in a way. I was angry about the constant conflict between Israel and Palestine -- and I was writing with anger. Then I calmed down and really came to the film with a different kind of approach, one that I have kept ever since. Not being naïve and not being an idiot about all these things, but really trying to keep an air of optimism, because otherwise why keep going? I think the main problem, not just in Israel but everywhere in the world, is not so much about hatred or about prejudice It's more about indifference. People finally say, "Well, who cares?" A thousand kids die every day in Darfur and you hear it on the news, and you shake your head madn in the morning when you see it on the news. And it’s just something that finally just ends up on the back page.

And that's why we will tend to remember Lemon Tree, for instance a little longer than we will remember a newscast.

I agree. Maybe films are probably the alternative to the media in a way, because everything on the media just comes and goes quickly all the time. But films get a few more minutes with you, and maybe they can do something in your memory.

Something you use or hear later will set off a memory of Lemon Tree and what you got out of it. Or maybe if you see the wonderful actress Hiam Abbass in something else -- like The Visitor -- it will jog your memory, and Lemon Tree will come back again. What are you working on now, by the way?

I am sort of fully-financed already on my next film which is called Human Resources --

Like that wonderful French film by Cantet!

Right. The full name is actually The Mission of the Human Resources Manager. It's a wonderful story. It's basically about a human resources manager at a large bakery in Jerusalem who has to take back to Russia the body of a foreign worker who died in a suicide bombing. It's basically a journey movie, with a dead body. And it was written by somebody else, not me, whose producer submitted it to me. And I liked it and thought it was great.

Do you usually write all your films?

Not always. I am always involved in the writing in some way, or am the co-writer. But a good script is a good script And it is not about ego or about having to write it myself. And anyway, a director usually does get involved in the script.

You mention ego -- that is something that impressed me a lot when I first heard you speak -- you just seemed so… regular. And it did not seem like a mask, either. Just something natural.

It’s like a philosophy. For me it is just the only way to keep in touch with the subjects I want to direct. How can you live one way and then direct your films in another way? I was thinking recently about American "stars" -- and I am not going to mention any names here -- but how can this star who lives in this big mansion play some little working class guy? There's no real bridge. Filmmakers do have to connect with the glory at times, but they also have to keep in touch with the spirit, with what they really want to do.

Another thing I've noticed is that you don't seem nearly as pushy as most Israelis that I've encountered in my life.

That's because I grew up here in America.

You grew up here?!

I was born in Israel but my father, who was a scientist, got his Ph.D. in Montreal and then he got some work at Columbia, and so for about five years when I was kid I lived here in NYC. Then we came back to Yale for one year, and then I was in Brazil for some years, and I went to an American high school there

No wonder your English is so good! And there's not even that much of an accent.

No, not really. It's kind of a strange accent. Not clear. In fact, people often think I am American.

Around this time, we get the high sign from the publicist
that our time is up.
We wish Eran Riklis great good fortune
with his American debut of
Lemon Tree, and look forward
to his upcoming
The Mission of the Human Resources Manager.

All photos by Eitan Riklis, courtesy of IFC Films

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