The Lebanon War as a Buddy Movie: ‘Zaytoun’

The late Roger Ebert coined the term ‘Wunza Movie’ for that familiar type of picture that features two mismatched individuals (frequently cops, usually men) who form an uneasy alliance to achieve a common goal and finding friendship along the way. The term derives from the inevitably expository trailer. You know the type, a Don LaFontaine voiceover that explains ‘wunza (one’s a) gentle family man nearing retirement… wunza borderline psychotic with authority issues and an itchy trigger finger. Together they are….’. You get the picture.

In Zaytoun, Israeli director Eran Riklis takes this broad concept and applies it to the 1982 Lebanon War in an effort to add depth to the conceit. Rather than a simple difference in temperament, the mismatch here is a generational and cross-border one. For sentimental but heartfelt reasons, a teenage Palestinian refugee agrees to accompany a downed Israeli pilot back to the border and the safety of his own territory. It’s a straightforward story in a setting that is anything but.

It opens with considerable élan. We explore the ruined, but surviving, city through the eyes of Fahed, a teenage Palestinian who likes to skip school (he has two: wunza normal school at which he is taught English, wunza a ‘terrorist school’ at which he learns to shoot) to play soccer in the streets with his friends. As the boys run, dodge and kick their way through the city, we’re treated to a mini-tour of the city, with all its excitement and danger.

This boy’s-eye-view is excellent. Through Fahed we see how living in a war zone can be fun. It’s a giant, constantly changing adventure playground, albeit one in which the danger is very real. It recalls John Boorman’s 1987 film Hope and Glory, set during the London Blitz. Rubble may block the road for cars, but it’s great for climbing on, while testing snipers by rolling abandoned tires makes excellent sport.

For all the scene’s fun, its message is rather heavily applied. Farhan and his friends are just like kids anywhere in the world, running down the street and yelling the name of their favourite players as they kick for goal (for these early ’80s youths it’s Brazilian midfielder Zico). The brutalisation of war is evident from the surroundings, but made weightily explicit when Farhan makes a cry of ‘goal!’ as he points a gun at an Israeli jet just as it encounters mechanical trouble and crashes.

This juxtaposition of the warlike in everyday life is scattered liberally throuught the film. The unoccupied seats at schooldesks decorated with framed photographs and flowers, the reference to martyrs, the sudden death from a clear sky. They remain, however, merely flecks of horror amid normality (or normality amid horror). What the film fails to address in depth is the ongoing result of warfare which is to radicalize, brutalize and dehumanize. Farhan finds it all too easy to negotiate his plan with Yoni, the Israeli pilot. His grief for the deaths in his family, while palpable, seems to be separated from the rest of his actions, other than in his sentimental quest to plant an olive tree in his homeland.

Nevertheless, these initial scenes in Beirut are the film’s best. They hint at a wealth of stories of life in wartime and of the myriad methods that people have of letting life go on as normal. Indeed, it’s almost a disappointment to leave the dilapidated environment to set out on the film’s main adventure.

These moments establish the theme of the film, that despite the background situation, ordinary human relationships emerge like weeds through broken concrete. Despite the ever present threat of air raids, gunfire and ordnance, boys will still be boys and despite a seemingly intractable conflict, friendships can still develop in defiance of mundane borders. The narrative takes the unlikely pair through a series of challenges, such as negotiating aid from a talkative taxi driver or getting past a roadblock. They feel artificial, as though overcoming each challenge confers ‘buddy points’ which can be redeemed in actual friendship as they near the completion of their journey. Some scenes lay this on especially thickly, Yoni’s concern at Farhan’s kicking of a soccer ball into a minefield is just one example, but they do provide moments of genuine tension.

Stephen Dorff is somewhat miscast as Yoni. His accent is a wavering mess (I detected a little of the South African he deployed in 1992’s The Power of One), and he has a hard time convincing of his emotional involvement in the journey. Abdallah El Akal is better as Fahed, whose normal, healthy drive towards rebellion and self-determination take on a political dimension. He’s a spirited and engaging kid who earns the viewer’s sympathies with aplomb.

However, the best candidate for the film’s lead is the landscape itself. Although it was filmed in Haifa, the broken urban environment of ’80s Beirut is captured brilliantly and transitions with east to the Lebanese countryside. The film is beautifully photographed by Dan Laustsen, who presents the Eastern Mediterranean landscape as a beautiful desolation in pale green and gray.

The road movie element of the film is disappointingly short and the lengthy coda in Israel is a misstep, delaying the inevitable separation without really adding to its ultimate emotional impact. It feels as though this section of the film is only included to complete some of the unfinished business of Farhan and Yoni’s friendship. Any personal connection between the two leads should have been established by the time they reached the border. If the journey itself is insufficient to do this, it diminishes the metaphor of the journey-as-learning-experience.

Overall, Zaytoun‘s core premise is a good one and the filmmakers obviously had the very best of intentions, but they only partially succeed in achieving them. It’s an entertaining film that manages to find beauty among the ruins, but ultimately fails to teach us anything that hasn’t already been covered by a thousand fables of friendship against the odds.

Special features: just the theatrical trailer and a ‘making of’ featurette.

RATING 5 / 10