Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Eran Riklis' Lemon Tree and Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers

The rule of law (or perceived rule of the perceived law) functions as a framework in both Eran Riklis' 2008 Lemon Tree and in Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 Battle of Algiers. While on the surface Battle of Algiers appears to be a so called 'even' portrayal of the events in the Algerian capital prior to independence, it serves to expose several elements that are later applied in occupied Palestine to legitimize the occupation, elements which are largely ignored and even perpetuated by Lemon Tree. The first, legitimization of violence, exemplified by the Colonel Matheiu character in Battle of Algiers ("We've requested a carte blanche, but that's very difficult to obtain. Therefore, it's necessary to find an excuse to legitimize our intervention and make it possible. It's necessary to create this for ourselves, this excuse."[1]) is further expanded upon and criticized in Eyal Weizman's essay dealing with the concept of "lawfare" where he explains the ways in which modern International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is used to justify violence[2]. As opposed to its use in Battle of Algiers, where the concept was presented as a perverse military tactic, in Lemon Tree it is presented as a catalyst of violence instead of what it really is, that is, the justification thereof. While still taking a negative role in the overall plot of the film, the justification (possible security threat of the lemon tree orchard) of the violence (cutting down the lemon trees) is presented as the catalyst for said violence (it is what sparks Hiam Abbass's character, Salma to go on her legal battle). As such, it displaces the justification of violence to the role of plot device, instead of an actual issue to be dealt with, thus diffusing its importance and avoiding the larger meaning thereof. This can be regarded as another instance of Israeli cinema's tendency to "mirror and reassert cultural and political concepts that stand in the way of any sustainable solution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict."[3]

The other concept explored and exposed in Battle of Algeirs is the (illusion of the) rule of law. The Colonel Matheiu character is again employed in a way that exposes the illusion of law in a military situation when he asks if they should question suspects "like the courts, taking a few months" (and promptly reminded by a reporter that "the law's often inconvenient"[4]). Lemon Tree on the other hand, takes the matter of the law literally, and gives us the illusion of justice as presented first in the regional and then Supreme Court, with Salma appealing the military's decision. While operating within a legal system would present an image of justice, the film is ignorant to the politics behind the court's decision and we can only infer the influence the defense minster character (Doron Tavory) would have had over this decision. Thus, Salma's experience with the judicial system not only displaces responsibility of Navon's actions to an impersonal bureaucracy, much in the same way that the one way mirror system would have done at the Allenby Bridge terminal[5] but also displaces Salma's struggle from that of a Palestinian woman fighting for her orchard with the Israeli occupier, to simply that of a woman fighting for her orchard, avoiding and subverting it from a "concrete reality"[6].

As such, Lemon Tree functions as an Israeli film that earnestly tries to bridge the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but ultimately (and most likely unintentionally) does little more than dramatize and displace it to an escapist emotional nether-realm to be consumed by an audience willing to face said issue but not willing to have to deal with it.

[1] The Battle of Algiers. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966, (00'58'16")

[2] Weizman, Eyal. “Lawfare in Gaza: Legislative Attack.” Open Democracy (March 2009). (Accessed 24 November 2009).

[3] Naaman, Dorit. “Elusive Frontiers: Borders in Israeli and Palestinian Cinemas.” Third Text, Vol. 20, Issue 3/4, May/July, 2006. 511.

[4] The Battle of Algiers., 1966, (1'30'23")

[5] Weizman, Eyal. “Checkpoints: The Split Sovereign and the One-Way Mirror.” Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation. London; New York: Verso, 2007. 139-159.

[6] Naaman, 2006, 513

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