International Crew Brings a Mideast Story to Life

Director Eran Riklis explains why he almost didn't make the big-budget film, about an Israeli pilot and a Palestinian boy who help each other during the Lebanon war.

Hagai Fried

Two weeks ago, Beirut circa 1982 was resurrected not far from the Haifa port. On the side of a hill was a huge, dusty sign with a portrait of Bashir Gemayel, the murdered Lebanese leader, overlooking events. An ambulance with Arabic letters crossed the square, followed by a van with two fighters in camouflage uniforms in the back, holding large submachine guns. A motorcycle buzzed along the highway and one of the young men riding it carried a frightening RPG grenade, a chain of bullets hanging loosely over his shoulder.

All around them the street was bustling. The atmosphere of a Mediterranean shuk (market ) mixed with the scorchingly hot and dry sharav (heat wave ). People at stands were selling vegetables and cold drinks. Several peddlers crossed the highway with wagons filled with merchandise; others loudly declared their wares. The Arabic they spoke mingled with the calls of the muezzin (one who leads the Muslim call to prayer ) from an adjacent mosque.

A man carrying a black harness, to which a heavy camera was attached, and a small crew of people running behind him revealed that this Lebanese square is merely a set that has been built especially for the filming of a new movie. The camera is in constant motion, following Fahd, a boy of about 12 who is making his way through the busy square. "Cigarettes! Cigarettes!" he shouts in Arabic, waving a pack before the eyes of potential buyers.

A white United Nations jeep stops in the middle of the road, and a blonde female officer signals that she wants to buy cigarettes. To the dissatisfaction of the Lebanese children standing around, the Palestinian boy manages to get to the jeep first. He hands cigarettes and a pack of gum to the officer, she pays him and the jeep continues on its way. The Lebanese boys rush to attack the boy: "Get off our streets! Go back to your smelly camp!" they shout at him, throwing him to the ground. A friend helps him get up and flee.

Meanwhile the film crew does a kind of strange dance around the events. The camera, in a very long shot, moves, turns around, approaches the child and moves away from him. In the end they load the camera onto a moving vehicle without putting a stop to the filming.

An unusually large set and budget

Cut. A shot of about two minutes, involving 10 extras, meticulous artistry and a camera that doesn't stop moving has come to an end. About 150 extras and perspiring crew members take a breather, have a cold drink, prepare for the next take. A set of this size is an unusual sight in the local film industry. "Zeitoun" is currently being filmed in Israel as a full-fledged international production; the script is in English, the producers are foreigners, there's a big budget and the lead is an American.

The person orchestrating the complicated scene is director Eran Riklis. Wearing a black visor cap and taking quick steps, he accompanies the film crew. Between takes he gives orders to the crew members, the actors and the extras. Relative to the size of the production and the complexity of the scene, he is quite calm. After directing "Playoff" about a year and a half ago with a budget of NIS 25 million, he is apparently beginning to get used to directing productions of this size. At the moment the budget for "Zeitoun" is about $7.8 million, eight times the budget of an average Israeli film.

Another person who doesn't lose his cool is producer Gareth Unwin, who won the Oscar for best film, "The King's Speech," about a year ago. The British producer is walking around in the Haifa heat wearing a cowboy hat and observing the goings-on. He says that he first found out about the project in late 2010, when he presented "The King's Speech" at the Dubai International Film Festival. There he met the American producer of the project, Fred Ritzenberg, and Palestinian-American scriptwriter Naider Rizak, an electronics engineer for whom this is his first screenplay.

"They told me a little about the film and let me read the screenplay," said Unwin, "but because I went from there to the Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles it took me a while to read it. When that finally happened I was enthusiastic. I was looking for a film that was different from 'The King's Speech' in terms of story and locale, and that's why this project suited me. I wanted to film outside of England, in another part of the world. That's the fun of being a producer - you can look for any project you like."

The story of "Zeitoun" takes place in May 1982, a few weeks before the outbreak of the first Lebanon war, when it was clear to everyone that an Israeli attack in Lebanon was only a matter of time. An Israeli pilot (American actor Stephen Dorff ) sets out on a routine mission in the skies of Lebanon, but engine trouble forces him to jettison his plane above Beirut. Palestinian Liberation Organization forces capture him, planning to hold him as a bargaining chip for the purpose of future negotiations with Israel.

After a few days in captivity a special relationship develops between the pilot and Fahd, who lost his father a short time earlier. Fahd grew up on stories he heard from his father and grandfather about Palestine, where they were born and from which they were expelled, and dreams of visiting his father's native village. When the pilot decides to escape, Fahd agrees to join his dangerous journey to the Israeli border, in the hope of fulfilling his dream. On the way the two are forced to overcome many obstacles and to bridge the gap between them.

An unexciting start

During a break in the filming Riklis finds time to tell us that at first he was not at all excited about the film. "I received it three years ago, when I was in the middle of filming "Miral" [Julian Schnabel's movie that was filmed in Israel, with Riklis as its Israeli producer]. I knew that I was about to start two other projects, 'The Human Resources Manager' and 'Playoff.' I knew that I could expect two crazy years, and I decided that this screenplay wasn't good enough."

Aside from the quality of the script, Riklis was not thrilled at the idea of once again directing a film whose plot revolved around the regional conflict. "I told myself that I had already completed my Middle Eastern Trilogy: 'Playoff,' 'The Syrian Bride' and 'The Lemon Tree.' Besides," he adds, "I felt that the screenplay was problematic because it wasn't written here. I told them that I wasn't interested, and that if they decided to change the screenplay they should speak to me again."

Last year, after completing work on "The Human Resources Manager," (which won five Israeli Ophir awards, including for best film and best director ), and on "Playoff" (which was based on the life story of basketball coach Ralph Klein and was not very successful in Israel ), Riklis received a phone call that surprised him. "They informed me that they would rewrite the screenplay based on my comments, and that Gareth [Unwin] was a candidate to join the project as producer. I met with him, decided to go for it and started working with the scriptwriter on the rewrite," he says.

Riklis calls "Zeitoun" a kind of optimistic variation on the question of what would happen if an Israeli pilot who was taken hostage in an Arab country was to succeed in escaping from his captors and make his way back to Israel. "After all, all the hostage stories that we know could have ended differently, had things unfolded in a different way," says Riklis. "In this film something fantastic happens, but I feel that it's also believable - a boy who is a Palestinian refugee fantasizes about getting to the village where his father was born, and sees an opportunity to make his dream come true if he helps the Israeli pilot.

"One disaster follows another, so that he has an interest in helping the pilot. The pilot, of course, also has an interest. He wants the boy to help him, and plans to get rid of him along the way. In the end his conscience - I'm hesitant about whether to say his Israeli conscience - doesn't let him do that, and he continues with the boy."

Giving the other side a human face

Riklis admits that the choice of the American actor Dorff ("Blade," "Public Enemies" ) for the lead was complicated. "It's clear that normally this character should have been played by an Israeli actor. But when you work with such budgets, it's hard to get the investors on board without names of famous actors," says Riklis. "At the same time, because most of the story takes place in Lebanon, the pilot has almost no need to use Hebrew. That's why I believe that it nevertheless succeeds in looking authentic.

"A film about two people who have to survive is not political," he adds. "But in this place there isn't a day without politics. "There's nothing to be done, a Palestinian boy and an Israeli pilot, with the history of this region, and the Lebanon War in the offing, is baggage that hovers over the film. Even if there is no attempt here to express political opinions, my statement filters down. Not many Israeli films give the other side a human face, and I'm always somewhat proud of that."

It's fun to make a big film with a big budget, Riklis admits, but in the same breath he claims that sometimes he longs to make a more modest film, like his 1999 film "Vulcan Junction." He says, "In a film with a big budget the work is the same, but there's much more pressure. Directors like Steven Soderbergh make both types of films. It's a challenging model that keeps your brain sharp."

Unwin says that he had no hesitation about making the film in Israel. About seven years ago he worked here on a project for the BBC, and was impressed by the level of the local professionals. That's why he feels it's only natural to make the film here. The same is true of the decision to entrust the project to Riklis. "I'm not sufficiently familiar with the region, and the relations between the nations living here are a sensitive subject," he says. "The combination of a Palestinian writer and an Israeli director, whose previous films have proven his political sensitivity, seems right to me."

The co-production agreement signed recently between Israel and Great Britain makes it easier to film a production of this type in Israel. The Haifa Municipality tried to accommodate the filmmakers as well. Haifa mayor Yona Yahav showed up at the lunch break during filming recently. But while shaking hands and being photographed with the filmmakers, a group of furious merchants attacked him. They were angry that filming has forced adjacent streets to be closed to traffic, harming their livelihood. Soon, though, the uproar died down, and producers began organizing for the filming of the next scene.