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Israeli director Eran Riklis teams up with first-time Palestinian writer Nader Rizq in this handsomely photographed Middle-Eastern road movie, which charts an improbable friendship between an Israeli pilot Yoni (Stephen Dorff) and an orphaned Palestinian street vendor Fahed (Abdallah El Akal). It begins in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war in 1982, on the eve of the Israeli invasion of the city, when Yoni’s jet crashlands and he’s taken prisoner by a group of PLO fighters. One of his adolescent guards Fahed is desperate to leave his Shatila refugee camp – which in real life was to be the site of a notorious Christian Phalangist-perpetrated massacre – and to return to the village of his late parents. Captor and captive strike a deal, and begin a perilous journey out of Beirut and across the countryside towards Lebanon’s southern border.
The Californian Dorff, presumably selected ahead of more suitable Israeli actors on grounds of international sales, feels miscast here, although he’s not helped by a predictable screenplay which presents a series of obstacles for its protagonists – including minefields, checkpoints, and mechanical failures – that are resolved far too easily. The symbolism at times feels burdensome: the film is named after the Arabic word for olive, and Fahed carries a small olive tree in his backpack, passed down to him by first his mother and then his father, which he yearns to plant in the soil of his native settlement. In the past Riklis has stated that he is not interested in making overtly political films, but in showing how so-called ‘ordinary’ people suffer from political decisions. One doesn’t doubt the humane intentions that lie behind Zaytoun, yet the result feels dramatically and emotionally unconvincing, and a step backwards from Riklis’s poignant allegory Lemon Tree.