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In 1982, amid the Lebanese Civil War, Israeli pilot Yoni (Stephen Dorff) is shot down over Beirut and is taken prisoner by inhabitants of a Palestinian refugee camp. Among the captors is ten-year-old Fahed, whose father obsessively tends to his prized, but sickly olive tree, refusing to replant it until they return to their ancestral land. Despite his deep-rooted hatred for Yoni, Fahed realizes he can use him to get past the border and into Palestine to plant his father's olive tree. The two embark on a harrowing and dangerous journey one that tests the very boundaries of humanity. ZAYTOUN is a story of survival, reconciliation and friendship.
A masterpiece of peace, hope, and endless possibilities --The Huffington Post
Tries to strike a hopeful note amid the many woes of the Middle East --San Francisco Chronicle
Touching --The New York Times
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The entire episode of the pilot (obvious white guy w/visible handcuffs visible all the time) and boy escaping and traveling such long distances without drawing much attention seemed contrived as did the boy's warming to the pilot despite a life surrounded by Palestinian causalities incurred by Israelis; especially death that rains down from the sky.
Finally, the ending where the boy is sent back to what is likely to be his death for his role in the loss of such an important trade asset seemed unlikely. Also unlikely, given that an Israeli soldier is worth a thousand Palestinian prisoners or hundreds of thousands of dollars in reward, is that the boy received a pair of shoes and sunglasses as his remuneration.
More challenging and interesting would have been an Israeli boy and Palestinian fighter as prisoner.
Fahed (Abdullah El Akal) is a fourteen-year-old Palestinian boy living in a refugee camp in Lebanon with his father and grandfather. The year is 1982 and Lebanon is one big war zone divided among myriad factions, from various Lebanese and Palestinian militias to Syrian and Israeli military forces, all vying for control. Some of the film's best scenes are the early ones which show what life is like for Fahed, his family and his friends, as they try to eke out an existence in a country where they're not wanted and where they daily take their lives in their hands just crossing from one part of Beirut to another. Fahed's father scolds him for risking his life just to earn what little money he can get from hawking gum, but at the same time knows that the family needs those meager coins to survive. His father clings to hope in the form of a potted olive tree that he carefully tends each day, a tree that he hopes to one day take back to the family's home in Israel which they had been forced to leave when Fahed was only a small boy and that Fahed can only barely remember.
After his father is killed in an Israeli bombing raid, Fahed becomes more involved with the local Palestinian militia, just when an Israeli jet is shot down over Beirut. The pilot, an Israeli named Yoni (Stephen Dorff), is captured and taken to the militia's headquarters where he is held with the intention of exchanging him later for a hundred Palestinian prisoners held by the Israelis. At first Fahed is understandably quite hostile towards Yoni, but when one of his friends is killed while trying to cross one of the zone boundaries in Beirut, Fahed decides to help Yoni escape and make it to the Israeli border - but on the condition that Yoni help him get into Israel so that he can return to his family's village and plant the olive tree his father had tended so carefully until he was killed. This is only the first of a number of implausible moments in the film which keep it from being as good as it had the potential of being.
Note: though it's never made explicit in the film, the title - Zaytoun - is the Arabic word for "olive". The symbolism is a bit heavy-handed, but even so it does tend to resonate and might actually have worked if the film had not been so simplistic in its approach and so implausible at various points, requiring things to happen because of the demands of the plot rather than flowing naturally from the needs of the characters.
For all of the problems with the plot, the acting in Zaytoun is quite good overall, in particular Abdullah El Akal's Fahed, who embodies the harsh realities of being a child in a time and place that doesn't allow for much of a childhood for anyone. I did have some trouble though in buying into Stephen Dorff's Yoni. Dorff came across as simply too American to be believable as an Israeli pilot, particularly when sharing screen time in Zaytoun - which was filmed in Israel - with real Israeli actors.
Recommended if you can live with minimal expectations and a willingness to periodically suspend disbelief.