by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has made nineteen trips to the Middle East in the last two years in hopes of securing a regional peace accord. But as the Bush administration comes to an end, Rice’s goal of a two-state solution will not be realized. During her most recent trip last week, she admitted that they’re not “at the finish line” of the peace process.
Salma – a middle-aged widow who farms the lemon trees planted by her father – wakes up one morning to a commotion. Curious, she leaves her modest home on the green line border between Israel and the West Bank and walks through her lemon grove to discover that her new next door neighbor is the Israeli Defense Minister (Doron Tavory). There are Secret Service personnel everywhere, watch towers being built, and too many guns to count.
The Defense Minister decides, at the advice of the Secret Service, that Salma’s lemon grove must be cut down because it could harbor terrorists. The fact that the grove has existed for 50 years without this happening is deemed irrelevant. Salma may live next door to the Defense Minister, but they are worlds apart. When she receives the official letter mandating that her trees will be cut down, Salma can’t even read the letter – it’s written in Hebrew and she only knows Arabic.Though the Israeli government offers her financial compensation for her trees, nothing can replace Salma’s emotional connection to the grove. And why should she have to change her entire life just because the Defense Minister decided to move next door? But Salma is alone is her struggle; her son tells her to forget about the trees and move to the United States to live with him. Others in Salma’s community simply dismiss her, saying, “your problem is small.”
But Salma decides that she’s not going to walk away from the only life she’s ever known. She becomes determined to fight for her land, and in turn takes on the entire Israeli government. Lacking financial resources and political connections, she tries to find someone to take her case. The camera follows her walking from office to office, the gravel crunching beneath her feet, her headscarf tied tightly, and her beauty only compromised by her tired eyes – her everyday actions quietly captured with pensive cinematography.
Eventually she meets Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman), an attractive young lawyer who is willing to take her case pro bono. Ziad is just as tragic and lonely a figure as Salma. Together they embark on a legal fight that takes them all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court – and a chaste romance doomed by their traditional culture.
The film is a heartbreaker, and yet it is able to capture the absurdity of Salma’s legal battle with the Israeli government with humor and sensitivity. Lemon Tree humanizes a conflict that divides the world by creating rich characters whose every action and emotion engages the audience. As the plot unfolds – in three seamlessly interwoven languages – obvious parallels are drawn between the characters’ lives and the greater relationship between Israel and Palestine. The film’s political allegory is definitely there, but subtle enough to make Lemon Tree a study of real people trying to carve out a life in the middle of an unending conflict.The characters are all divided by something larger then themselves. Salma and Ziad, an older widow and a young upstart lawyer, can never be together in Palestinian society. The Defense Minister’s wife, Mira Navon (Rona Lipaz-Michael), may disagree with her husband’s decision to cut down Salma’s lemon grove, and yet she can only watch through her bullet-proof windows as the Secret Service threaten to arrest Salma for picking the fruit off her own trees. Salma and Mira, both forlorn women depressed by the world, are only physically separated by the lemon grove, but truly divided by their two warring countries.
The lemon grove Salma fights for is a symbol for what stands between Israel and Palestine – nothing and everything. Salma is only one person in a fictional film, but as she herself proclaims, “My life is real.” That, in essence, is the brilliance of the film: it truly questions the logic of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a touching portrait of one woman’s plight.
About the Author Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in San Francisco, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.