Malibu Film Society Begins 4th Season With ‘Zaytoun’

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Former Malibu resident Stephen Dorff, as Yoni, and Abdallah El Akal, as Fahed, star in “Zaytoun.” The Malibu Film Society opened its new season with a screening of the movie, which is set in war-torn Lebanon in 1982. 

If Mark Twain had grown up in the Middle East, Huckleberry Finn and Jim might have been striding across Lebanon like the characters in “Zaytoun,” which opened the Malibu Film Society’s fourth season this past Saturday. 

Set in war-torn Lebanon in 1982, “Zaytoun” is the first film released by British producer Gareth Unwin since he won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, for “The King’s Speech” in 2010. The film will be in theaters this week, and is already generating Oscar buzz. 

As Israel prepares to invade Lebanon, Israeli fighter pilot Yoni (former Malibu resident Stephen Dorff) is captured when his jet crashes. When an adolescent Palestinian terrorist-in-training (Abdallah El Akal) sees an opportunity to return to his former childhood home and frees Yoni, the two set off with a common goal—crossing the border to Israel without getting stopped by roadblocks or killed by fighting factions. At first the two are sworn enemies, but as they progress along their journey they develop an unlikely, close bond. 

Unwin said it was only after the film was finished that he realized its similarity with his most recent work. 

“Even though I wanted to find something that was very different from ‘The King’s Speech,’ at one of the early Q&As a friend pointed out that, in fact, I had made yet another period buddy picture,” he wrote in an email from his Bedlamp Productions company in the U.K. to The Malibu Times

Although Dorff ’s father is Jewish, he still had to master Hebrew-accented English for the role, as well as become familiar with F-16 jets and meet Israeli military pilots of that era. Many of them are now employed by Israeli airline El-Al. 

Unwin describes the young Arab actor playing the Lebanese Palestinian, Abdallah El Akal, as “an incredible talent. I told him I’m relying on him for my next Oscar.” He beat 400 other young acting hopefuls out for the part. 

“The one thing that surprised us is the humor of the film,” Unwin wrote. “There are intense scenes, but there are also amazing, charming moments that make you laugh out loud.” 

The movie, the first official British-Israeli film co-production, is a genuine international endeavor. The screenplay was written by a Palestinian-American engineer that Unwin met at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2010. 

Since the movie pairs a Palestinian with an Israeli, the filmmakers knew it would be a sensitive subject. 

“Both the producers and the director recognized that certain elements would be instantly inflammatory to one side of the argument or the other, and we tried to move through those as even-handedly as possible,” Unwin wrote. “Ultimately, our shared ambition was to find a way in which to table the issues without forcing one side or the other to retire to an entrenched position fueled by rhetoric.” 

The film’s international nature is immediately evident, with dialog in English, Arabic and Hebrew (with subtitles as needed). Unwin said he didn’t think it was risky to have subtitles because “Arabic and Hebrew were the mother tongues to the main characters. I think it fortuitous that we could introduce so much English and have it remain believable.” 

The real-life movie cast and crew of “Zaytoun” included Arabs, Israelis, British and Americans. 

“The on-set spirit of the cast and crew was in the main a positive one, although the issues came into sharper focus when we were filming in northern Israel and working closely with regional locations,” Unwin said. “There was one instance where radio interference was coming from a house in Syria, and there was nothing we could do about it.” 

Unwin added that even though “international productions are in their very nature complicated, many independent films need to be set up that way.” 

The entire film was shot on locations across Israel, even the scenes that took place in Lebanon. Parts of the city of Haifa were made to look like war-torn Beirut, and great pains were taken to find unusual locations that hadn’t been seen before in films. 

Unwin sees “Zaytoun’s” message as universal, one that could be understood in any culture. “Ultimately, we’re all just people,” he said. 

After the Malibu Film Society screening, Rabbi Judith HaLevy, a former resident of Israel, hosted a lively audience discussion about “Zaytoun” noting that much of the movie’s dramatic finale was filmed along Israel’s northern border at the exact same spot a local tour group visited this summer. While noting that there’s no easy solution to the Middle East conflict, she ended the evening with a prayer for peace.