Review: 'Zaytoun', Starring Stephen Dorff and Abdallah El Akal

It might be cliché to take two people who very much hate each other and turn them into friends, but director Eran Riklis does it like a pro that there isn’t really much to complain about. Zaytoun is rich in context and character journeys.  Set in Beirut, Lebanon circa 1982, it pulls you in from the very beginning and brings dark times filtered with a lightheartedness that only Riklis can accomplish.  

Fahed (Abdallah El Akal) is a Palestinian living in the Shatilla refugee camp in Beirut. His mother is dead and his father soon dies after trying to save someone during a bombing. Conditions in the camp aren’t exactly luxurious and tensions are always brewing between everyone involved. For those who know their history well, the film takes place during the height of the Lebanese civil war where everyone seems trigger happy both inside the country and around its borders.

Yoni (Stephen Dorff) is an Israeli fighter pilot who finds himself a prisoner of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) when he's forced to exit his plane over the camp Fahed lives in. Fahed, sometimes forced to take part in a boot camp, initially has nothing but hate for Yoni and vice versa. The two have a predisposed prejudice and spend a lot of time cursing and glaring at each other.

After Fahed loses a friend and things seem the bleakest for him, he makes a deal with Yoni. He’ll let the older man go if he promises to take Fahed to Palestine where his family used to live. Yoni agrees and they set off on a journey through Lebanon to get to the south border where Yoni’s colleagues are stationed. The trip involves a lot of mistrust, a funny cab driver, several moments of almost getting caught, and a camaraderie that builds to a dependence and eventual friendship between the two.

The title Zaytoun means “olive” in Arabic and refers to the tree Fahed takes with him on the trip to his family’s hometown. His wish is to plant it there like his father wanted to do as soon as they got back home. 

With so many films out there about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and the politics of it all, Zaytoun doesn’t ignore the history and actual events of the year, but chooses also to focus on the characters and their evolution.

Stephen Dorff and Abdallah El Akal have great chemistry together. You’ll feel the hate between them so passionately at first. By the end of the movie their relationship is the polar opposite of when it started and you can trace back how it gets to be that way from beginning to end.

Dorff and El Akal develop an almost father/son-type relationship and they play off of each other really well. Their most poignant and moving scene comes at the very end. Knowing that unpleasant things are going to happen in the near future, the final moments of the movie are bittersweet and heartbreaking.

The film balances the politics of the area and entertainment really well. It has a few dark moments, but they manage to be overshadowed by lighter moments throughout. The cinematography is beautiful, the war-torn camps contrasted with the natural beauty along Yoni and Fahed’s journey.

Eran Riklis sets several of his films in the Middle East, The Syrian Bride and Lemon Tree among them, but Zaytoun is one of his best films so far. He brings together two people from different worlds, who have two different views, and links them together without making it a melodramatic cliché fest. The movie is sad and lighthearted in the midst of a dramatic political situation. Poignant and thoughtful, Zaytoun is a solid effort from Riklis.