Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Compassionate 'Lemon Tree' opens the Austin Jewish Film Festival

Dozens of features, docs and shorts from around the world animate the eighth annual festival

Chris Garcia
A Holocaust survivor (Jeff Goldblum) becomes friends with a boy in a mental hospital in 'Adam Resurrected.'

In the poised and polished "Lemon Tree," a Palestinian woman stands alone and proud amid her grove of lemon trees, a stalwart of tradition glaring down unyielding change on the dividing line between Israel and the West Bank. The Israeli minister of defense has moved into a luxurious new home mere yards from the trees and, for security reasons, wants to uproot the grove, which could hypothetically serve as a lush and mazy cover for terrorists.

The woman, a humble widow named Salma (the always impeccable Hiam Abbass), will have none of it. She is not a demonstrative person, but her rigid face, a mask of dignity and defiance, shows fissures of indignation. Fifty years of family heritage — her entire life — are on the line.

Director Eran Riklis, who touched on similar themes with equal empathy in "The Syrian Bride," doesn't turn his human-level drama into a tract. He's more interested in interpersonal sparks than ideological firebombs, how people behave in trying times.

That's not to say that "Lemon Tree," opening the Austin Jewish Film Festival on Saturday, isn't political. It's acutely political, exploring issues with a pseudo-objectivity that tilts its sympathy to Salma's plight. She's cast as a stoic victim of the state, a Palestinian villager trying to get along in the shadow of militant Israeli expansion.

The fence and looming watch-tower between the grove and the Jewish property are the literal and symbolic divide between opposing causes. Salma hires an attorney (Ali Suliman) and their case winds its way to the Supreme Court, earning international headlines ("Lemon war!").

The ruling contains everything the movie wants to say.

Salma and the young attorney flirt with a May-December romance, but the most interesting relationship develops between Salma and the minister of defense's wife (Rona Lipaz-Michael). The wife doesn't understand her husband's insistence on destroying the lemon trees and she telegraphs her compassion for Salma from afar, a sweet solidarity with feminist tones.

"Lemon Tree," which played in Austin last summer, takes a stand for honor and questions the status quo.

Its brush strokes might be light, yet the film's elegiac final shot — the camera cranes over a monolithic security wall to find Salma alone in an altered grove — has a lingering sting.

——————————————————————————————————————————————

A few highlights:

‘A Matter of Size' — A group of tubby guys in Israel try their flab at sumo wrestling in this award-winning 2009 comic drama by Erez Tadmor and Sharon Maymon. In Hebrew and Japanese, with English subtitles. 9 p.m. Saturday, Arbor; 7 p.m. Tuesday, Texas Hillel; 4 p.m. Wednesday, City Lights Theatre.

‘Jaffa' — In a Jewish garage, a young Jewish woman and Palestinian man nurture a long but clandestine love affair. It's a forbidden romance, with tinges of ‘Romeo and Juliet.' In Hebrew, with English subtitles. 7 p.m. Monday and noon Tuesday, Arbor.

‘Adam Resurrected' — Jeff Goldblum plays a Holocaust survivor who befriends a young boy in an Israeli mental hospital, where he becomes a kind of ringleader in this 2008 drama based on Yoram Kaniuk's novel. With Willem Dafoe; directed by Paul Schrader. 7 p.m. Monday, Mezes Hall; 9 p.m. Thursday, Arbor.

‘Kirot' — Olga Kurylenko (‘Quantum of Solace') stars as a sex worker and assassin in Tel Aviv who yearns to return to her daughter in Ukraine. She finds a peer in an abused wife (Ninette Tayeb), and together they map an escape from male oppression. A female empowerment action-thriller. In English, Hebrew and Russian. 9 p.m. Wednesday, Arbor.

‘Conspiracy' — The festival's closing film, a historical drama, recreates the Wannsee Conference of 1942, in which Nazi officials plotted the extermination of millions of Jews in concentration camps. 3 p.m. April 16, Arbor.

————————————————————————————————————————————————

Details:

When: Saturday through April 16

Where: Arbor Cinema (9828 Great Hills Trail), Mezes Hall at the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Texas (first floor, Room 306, and basement, Room 306), Texas Hillel (2105 San Antonio St.), City Lights Theatre (420 Wolf Ranch Parkway in Georgetown).

Tickets: $6-$8 general admission, sold at theater box office; $60 Flex Passes, good for 10 admissions; $150 Friend of the Festival Film Badges, good for admission to all films at all venues with advance seating 15 minutes before show time.

Information:www.austinjff.org

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649