Zaytoun (2012), the latest film from Lemon Tree (2008) director Eran Riklis, explores the theme of humanity in war-torn Beirut, circa 1982. Young Palestinian refugee Fahed (Abdallah El Akal) is left orphaned following the death of his father during an Israeli air attack. His days are spent in military training and dodging deadly bullets with his friends. During one training session, Fahed mimics shooting down a plane. At that very moment, the fighter pilot ejects himself as plane bursts into flames and crashes. Taken hostage by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation is the pilot, Yoni (Dorff), who is thrown into captivity.
Here, Fahed and his group of friends are trusted to keep guard of him. During an altercation Yoni turns the tables threatening to kill one of the young guards unless they helped him to escape but unable to carry out his threat, he lets the child go and is then shot and transported to the local hospital to recover. Fahed, having already lost his family, agrees to help Yoni escape and lead him out of the city on the understanding that the fighter pilot will get him over the border and back to his family’s ancestral village.
Riklis uses the Lebanese landscape to great effect, juxtaposing horrific scenes of mass destruction with the untouched, stark beauty of Beirut’s sweeping landscape. The latter of which is also used as a symbol of hope, framing the refugees as they make their escape into the glaring sunshine. The reality of the issues explored in Zaytoun evoke a mass of empathy for young Fahed, whose own escape from the world he was born into mirrors that of the prison escapee. Fahed is played beautifully by El Akal, who approaches the role with a feisty, epigrammatic attitude that far exceeds his fourteen years. The young actor’s talent to express vulnerability at the pull of a trigger is both moving and heartbreakingly poignant.
Dorff, on the other hand, certainly knows how to act upon paternal instinct and he deftly does so, continuing a similar theme from his single parent figure in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010). It’s great to see the actor emerge from straight-to-video-action-hero hell, back to the leading man status which he so deserves. The film could easily have over-indulged on the saccharine, yet to his credit Riklis opts for the true grit approach. In doing so, Zaytoun provides a compassionate insight into the life of a war child and his family.
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