This past week brought the conclusion of the 27th Los Angeles Israeli Film Festival. Since the festival’s inception in 1982, nearly one thousand films have been showcased among New York, Miami and Los Angeles. I was able to catch the final night’s feature presentation, Zaytoun, which happens to take place the same year the festival began.
Zaytoun stars Stephen Dorff as an Israeli fighter pilot, who is shot down over the skies of Beirut and taken prisoner by Palestinian refugees. While in captivity, Dorff bargains an unlikely deal with one of his young guards, when he promises to take the boy across the border with him to Israel, in exchange for helping him escape. The story unfolds as the two must resolve their differences to make their way across war-torn Lebanon to the safety of Israeli forces.
I know what you’re thinking: Who better to play an Israeli fighter pilot than an American actor? And what better language for an Israeli film to be in than English? But it shouldn’t really matter what nationality someone is if they tell the story properly. We just had an Englishman portray Abraham Lincoln and an American play Margaret Thatcher, flawlessly. And I must say Dorff does just fine as the leading man, no doubt with the aid of his impressive young co-star, Abdalleh El Akal. Zaytoun (the Arabic word for “olive”) is directed by veteran director Eran Riklis, who has several credits to his name, though none that I’m familiar with.
Overall I found the film to be decent, but unnecessarily bland. The basic story is interesting, the acting is convincing and the direction is fine, as far as I can tell. But I feel like the film rushes through parts that should take their time and drags during scenes that should be shorter. I don’t know if this is to be blamed on the director, or screenwriter Nader Rizq. By making the film almost entirely in English, with an American actor as the lead, it’s obvious that Zaytoun is meant to have overseas appeal; the United States certainly being a target audience. But much of the backstory of the film is left unexplained, to the film’s detriment.
Having been educated in one of the best public school systems in this country, I can tell you not one day was spent in any history class on the relationships among, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, etc. The little I understand of it comes mainly from watching CNN and Facebook updates from my friends in Israel. I had no idea why Palestinian refugees are in the middle of Lebanon and Israeli jets are dropping bombs on Beirut, until I checked Wikipedia this morning: Zaytoun does not explain the circumstances of the war at all. This left me confused throughout much of the film, trying to figure out who our protagonists are hiding from. A simple explanation at the very beginning of the film, or a slow reveal of information throughout would have helped a great deal.
Zaytoun is a film I would recommend watching at home, but not necessarily in theaters. Despite it’s flaws, the movie was put together nicely and managed to keep my attention for nearly two hours. With a more enlightening script, containing some historical explanations, it would be more marketable in the US. As it is, I wouldn’t recommend spending any money on it.