During the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon, many Palestinians were forced to flee to Beirut and live as refugees, with men, women and children setting up makeshift camps far from the battlefield. In Zaytoun (playing at Angelika Film Center April 14), the war literally comes crashing down on them one day as an Israeli fighter pilot (Stephen Dorff) lands outside the camp.
A group of gun-wielding pre-teens watches guard over this new prisoner of war. Among these displaced children is Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), whose father died in an Israeli air attack and left behind only a small potted olive tree from their homeland.
Fahed dreams of one day returning home and replanting the tree, while Yoni knows he must escape the camp or face death at the hands of his captors. So the unlikely duo makes a deal to escape.
Below, Zaytoun producer Fred Ritzenberg discusses the bond that Fahed and Yoni create, resulting in an engaging story of two would-be enemies who work together in search of home.
DIFF: Though Yoni and Fahed are never truly depicted “at war” on a battlefield, the two are certainly fighting against many things. What are they fighting against?
Fred Ritzenberg: I think Yoni and Fahed are very much “at war.” The war takes place in the refugee camp and on the road to Israel. Lebanon is in the middle of a 15-year civil war. Many factions are fighting one another.
Yoni is the object of Fahed’s anger directed toward the pilot who killed his father in an air raid. He is also at war with the people who make his life so difficult.
His frustration of not being able to return to the ancestral land and being a virtual prisoner in Beirut further fuels the hatred directed toward Yoni — so much so that he shoots the prisoner in the butt. He denies Yoni water when they first meet. He steals a picture of Yoni’s wife and taunts him with his freedom.
The turn is when they stop fighting each other and fight for their survival, which forces a bond between them.
DIFF: Which is more difficult: winning a war or winning hearts and minds?
FR: Zaytoun tells the story of two people with opposing points of view learning to see the other’s perspective. Yoni and Fahed are forced together by circumstances and learn to survive by gaining the trust of one another. That is the reason that Fahed and Yoni were able to walk away from this experience changed.
They won the hearts and minds of one another, which gives us hope. Sadly, the war escalates at the end of the story.
DIFF: What do Yoni and Fahed see in each other that allows them to overcome their roles as enemies?
FR: Yoni first sees Fahed as an impulsive, temperamental and dangerous boy who will eventually become a terrorist. Fahed sees Yoni as the pilot responsible for killing his father in an air raid. He sees him as a coward and the enemy.
Yoni and Fahed share a similar experience but aren’t aware of it until the end of the story: the tragedy of losing a father during war. This parallel story binds them in ways they don’t fully understand until the end of the film. They share a similar story but with opposite sides.