by director Eran Riklis
I want to tell you about Abdallah. Abdallah El Akal. He’s 14 years old (going on 15 soon). He lives in the heart of Tel Aviv. He has 8 brothers and sisters. He loves his iPhone. He loves his McDonald’s burger and milkshake. He knows all the latest songs. He’s a good student although he sometimes tends to get into trouble. He loves watching movies. And he loves appearing in them. In fact, Zaytoun was, at the age of 13, his 27th film… But all of the above facts I had to ask him, to tell him, to put behind him, to ignore them for three months as now he was about to become Fahed, a kid from 1982 Beirut who lost his mother, loses his father and some of his best friends, is trained to hate anything and anyone who has something to do with Israel, has to survive on the tough streets of Beirut avoiding so many who hate Palestinians, he has to be Fahed, not Abdallah. A journey, a road that we took together once I chose him to lead Zaytoun, and I chose him because I knew that he would charm and endear anyone who watches him on screen, anyone, no matter what political belief, no matter what they feel about the Middle East conflict and its complexities. Abdallah as Fahed would simply grow on you and make you enter this crazy, chaotic, dangerous world of Lebanon, 1982, moments before war and following seven years of horrific civil war.
I want to tell you about Stephen. Stephen Dorff. When we first met in New York, a few months before the first day of shooting Zaytoun, I walked away from the meeting feeling there’s no way this is going to happen. Stephen appeared to be a total California boy who can never have anything in common with a born and bred Israeli pilot. What was I thinking? Well, I thought about it again…and once I did, I discovered a talented, sensitive, slightly secretive actor who gave me the feeling that there will be a lot to explore, a lot to discover. I felt he has a secret and once an actor has a secret, I’m there to discover what it is. Or at least try. It’s a process I go through with all my leading actors as it is a mutual journey of exploration, of getting to know the character they are portraying and getting to know them—sometimes without them even knowing that their director is actually doing that. So Stephen became Yoni, an Israeli pilot, someone I knew from my childhood (older brothers of friends…) a figure that is at once familiar and distant, friendly yet obscure, a person who sees life from 30,000 feet above the ground and is now forced to see life from his eye level. And there he sees Fahed. And their fates are bound together for a journey, a voyage, a road taken together on and in which they both have to survive. And surviving together means they have to overcome the natural instinct they were both brought up on, hate, suspicion, hostility.
So Stephen and Abdallah met. Yoni and Fahed met. And they both survived. And they both enjoyed the road to survival. And they both give you the wonderful sensation that everything is possible, against all odds, if you just give it a chance.