Program Notes: Lemon Tree (2008)

It takes courage and audaciousness to make a movie about the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Make it too partisan, and you’re accused of propagandizing; avoid politics, and you’re watering down a serious issue. There’s really no way to win.

Israeli director Eran Riklis and his Palestinian co-writer, Suha Arraf, achieve a modest victory with Lemon Tree, a film that takes place along the border between the two cultures, literally and figuratively.

Hiam Abbass plays Salma, a quiet Palestinian widow who makes a meager living off a lemon grove that has been in her family for decades. When the new Israeli defense minister (Doron Tavory) moves in next door, his security experts declare the grove an easy hiding place for terrorists and order it destroyed.

Film Screening:
Lemon Tree (2008)
Saturday, Nov. 2 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Instead of accepting financial compensation and keeping her mouth shut, Salma decides to fight back, hiring a young lawyer (Ali Suliman) and taking the case all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court.

She finds an unlikely ally in Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), the defense minister’s neglected wife, who empathizes with Salma’s sense of isolation. Surrounded by armed guards and security fences, both women are essentially prisoners, and they develop a strong, if unspoken, bond.

While the entire cast is very good, Abbass must carry most of the film with little dialogue. Her subtly expressive face is a script unto itself, conveying everything from formal, traditional modesty to angry defiance. She even pulls off Salma’s complicated relationship with her lawyer, an almost-romance that raises suspicions among her traditionalist Palestinian neighbors.

As Lemon Tree plays out, its allegorical ambitions get the better of it – the final scenes may as well just spell out the message in flashing neon. Riklis and Arraf clearly sympathize with the Salmas of the world, although they do deserve credit for acknowledging the genuine concerns of both sides, as well as their deep flaws.

The greatest accolades should go to Abbass, however. Thanks to her remarkable performance, Lemon Tree provides a deeply human experience that transcends ideology. At least for a while.

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Other films in the series “Middle Eastern Voices”

This film series complements the exhibit Echoes: Islamic Art & Contemporary Artists on display through April 27, 2014, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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