Filmlog: Laila’s Birthday and The Lemon Tree
I hold with Washington and Jefferson—it is dangerous folly for our government to get involved in conflicts among different bunches of foreigners. But that wisdom was long ago trashed by our rulers, who imagine themselves Masters of the Universe of Global Democracy, and their court intellectuals, who imagine themselves to be prophets when they are only second-string and rather comic soothsayers.
Avoidance of entangling alliances does not preclude sincere interest in other peoples. Rather, self-interest, as well as the natural sympathy of free men for oppressed peoples and the natural desire of active minds for understanding, suggest the contrary.
Americans, notoriously provincial (and never more so when they think they are leading the world), are perhaps even more ignorant than usual about the Palestinian side of that endless "Middle East conflict." So far as information available to the average American is concerned, Palestinians are "terrorists" and rock-throwing adolescent mobs, with turbaned weirdo leaders who are always disrupting "the peace process." These two quiet, humane films are worthy expressions of cinematic art and even more valuable in that they give us a more balanced and nuanced story. In the interest of fair disclosure here, I admit that where I come from we still hand down family stories about what it was like to be the victims of ruthless invasion and occupation, without rights in your own land. That may affect my sympathies. It does seem to me that the Palestinians, imperfect like all of us God's creatures, are one of those peoples who have endured more suffering than they have earned.
Laila's Birthday seems to have been created by the collaboration of a Palestinian director and European film companies. It might be called "A Day in the Life of a Palestinian." The central character, a man of quiet dignity and integrity, spends his day in Ramallah trying to earn a living with a taxi belonging to his brother-in-law, a position considerably beneath his education and experience. In addition to the normal problems of daily life—cellphone annoyance, car trouble—he must cope with the normal abnormal realities of explosions, checkpoints, and routine humiliation. All the while, he is engaged in an almost classic odyssey in quest of a gift and a cake for his daughter's birthday. Among other things, this works well as a good family values flick.
The Lemon Tree, said to be based on real events, is a poignant account of the tribulations of a Palestinian widow on the West Bank. A lemon grove, her only inheritance and livelihood, is targeted for destruction by the Israeli government, who declare it a threat to "state security" because its blocks their surveillance of a small section of border. The widow is played to perfection by Hiam Abbass, an Arab-Israeli. She has a maturely beautiful and subtly expressive face such as we associate with the greatest actresses. That this film was created by Israelis and portrays the Arab side of a Jewish-Arab conflict, is perhaps a faint sign of hope for peace and justice in the Holy Land.
Neither film is shrill or unbalanced—if anything they are understated. Israelis are not monsters but mostly regular people carrying out orders which may be unpleasant but which they believe necessary. In The Lemon Tree (as in real life) some of the Israelis have consciences that give them pause about the justice and consequences of the oppression of the original inhabitants of their land—an oppression which they regard as required for their own safety. Both films give more than a hint that the Palestinians—like all the rest of us—suffer much from the selfishness and duplicity of their own politicians as well as from the occupying force.
The Islamic world, with its teeming millions and oil-rich princes, has produced very little worthwhile cinematic art—rather less than Sweden or Australia. That should tell us something about the culture of the followers of The Prophet. Iranians, who have produced a number of good films, are an exception, but, of course, they were Persians before they were Muslims. And Palestine, let us remember, until fairly recent times, enjoyed much of the influence of classical and Christian civilisations and was never fully Islamized.