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Film Recommendations: Lemon Tree & The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

5 June, 2009

Two unrelated films are highly commendable.  First, an Israeli film entitled Lemon Tree (2008)  is the story of two neighbours in the hotly contested Israeli/West Bank region.  One is the widowed   45-year-old Salma Zidane (played by Hiam Abbas) who tries to make a living by tending her family’s lemon grove.
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The other is Israel’s hawkish Defence Minister (Doron Tavory) and his young wife, Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael).  For security reasons (but one senses other reasons too) the Israelis erect a wall between their new home and Salma’s lemon grove.  This is where the tension increases.

The Israeli authorities order Salma to uproot her trees because the area represents a potential security threat. Defiantly, Salma asks a Russian-educated lawyer Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman) to help her prevent the construction of the wall and the impact this will have on her lemon grove.  The case ends up going all the way to Israel’s Supreme Court, a process which gains the attention of the national and international media.

Running underneath the obvious Palestinian/Israeli conflict expressed in this film are sets of relationships full of pathos. Salma, for example, incurs the displeasure of a Palestinian elder (Makram J Khoury) for becoming romantically involved with her attorney Ziad.  There is also tension between Mira and her defence minister husband — there is clearly a relational “wall” between them.  But the most poignant relational component is that between Mira and Salma.   Mira is torn between her sense of loyalty to her husband and her unease at what is being done to Salma, admitting that “I wish I could be a better neighbour to her”.

Israeli writer-director Eran Riklis  stated that he wanted to show “people trapped in a political deadlock”, and Lemon Tree creates an almost parable-like context.

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I have very little knowledge of the whys and wherefores of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, even as President Obama tries to bring both sides together “yet again” to see if some sort of dialogue and potential resolution can arise.  Lemon Tree, I think, doesn’t end up taking one side or the other.  Instead, it provides a window for viewers to see the heartache, frustration, complexities and pain experienced by all parties in this ongoing tragedy.

The second film is the remarkable, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), based upon the John Boyne novel.

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You’d think that yet another film about the Nazi extermination of millions of Jews during the Second World War would prove problematic.  Yet the novel and this film adaptation prove not to be “yet another film” about this horrific period of European history.

Fundamentally the film’s success is because it is the story of two 8 year old boys: Bruno (Asa Butterfield), the son of the German S.S. labour/extermination camp commandant and Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a Jewish boy imprisoned in the camp and, in the first instance, is “the boy in the striped pajamas”.  The two young child actors playing these boys are outstanding (their facial expressions and, especially, eyes are intensely affecting).

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Now it is important to say that critics of Boyne’s novel have strongly challenged the story insisting that 8 year old children did not stay long in extermination camps (like Auschwitz) because they were killed almost immediately upon arrival.  Boyne has been accused of creating an erroneous historical picture.  The film’s detractors (and they’ve been outspoken) accuse the film of trivialisation and Hollywood kitsch.  On the other hand there are reviewers who counter with evidence that children were in some of the extermination camps.  You’ll need to read some of the articles and on-line comments.

Of course it could be argued that both the novel and the film are not necessarily trying to present a fully or literally accurate account.  Rather, the two boys are story expressions or ‘devices’ to get underneath our understanding of the Holocaust to show us in another way the horrors.  It is allegorical in this sense.

Concurrent with the developing relationship between Bruno and Shmuel (a relationship existing with innocence and confusion and separated by barbed wire) is the relationship breakdown within Bruno’s family and extended family.

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His father (played by David Thewlis of Harry Potter fame) and mother (superbly played by Vera Farmiga) fall apart as his mother’s naivete and superficiality are stripped away, leaving her with the excruciating reality of what her country and, especially, her husband are doing.

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I won’t give the story away.  What I will say is this film shows not only the horror of the Nazis’ murder of Jewish people but the multiple levels of ‘culpability’.  Bruno’s family, at the start of the film, display all the signs of a loving and ‘respectable’ family.  Yet at the very heart of things are blindness, naivete, superficiality and (and here is the powerful point) culpability — a culpability that includes them and ends up breaking them.  The boy in the stripped pajamas takes on an unforeseen, personal and tragic meaning.

And it is this sense of culpability that got me thinking of my and our lives: in what ways am I, are we, currently just like Bruno’s family?  What am I and we ignoring?  Whatever else we may say about Boyne’s novel and this film adaptation we really aren’t left with the comfortable option of saying “This is an interesting (or dubious) story of something long ago.”  The story (and its’ devices) tunnel underneath us and, thereby, include us.

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