From Dream to Nightmare




The feature film Zaytoun, produced by Academy Award winner Gareth Unwin (The King’s Speech) recently completed its US theatrical run.


The movie was billed as a harmonious effort in film making and a shining example of Palestinian-Israeli cooperation.


Hiding beneath the surface of this idealistic image is a different and far more telling story; one that mirrors everyday life in the Palestinian-Israeli dynamic, and ties directly back to the root cause of the conflict itself.


This website was created by the film’s writer as a vehicle to freely express his opinion on how Israeli censorship, misinformation and stereotype of Arabs influenced the film.











An International Effort


The film is an international effort. From its first time Palestinian American writer who started researching the subject matter and writing the script back in 1991, to its Academy Award winning British producer, Israeli director, American producer, Danish cinematographer, French editor, International co-producing partners; to its Hollywood actor working alongside Palestinian and Israeli talent, it was a venerable United Nations of very talented and committed individuals who believed in the heart and soul of the story being told.










Respectful Collaboration


Respectful collaboration was the norm when Israeli director Eran Riklis first attached to the project in late 2008. His script notes were well thought out and rang true to the story and characters. Though they necessitated a complete restructuring of the script and the removal of what Eran insisted were “political slogans”, this first time Palestinian writer had little reservation implementing them.





Image: via Flickr







Oscar Winning Producer of ‘ The King’s Speech ‘


When producer Gareth Unwin came aboard in 2011, days after walking off the Academy Award stage with the Best Picture Oscar for ‘The King’s Speech’, the 20 year dream of seeing the film on screen took a big step toward reality.


This highpoint lasted 9 months during which several more script alterations were requested spurred by location, pacing, budget and schedule constraints.  All were implemented with excitement at witnessing how the process worked.




Image: Beacon Radio via Flickr








The Nightmare Begins


As financing fell into place and pre-production began toward the end of 2011 however, troubling hints of censorship started to appear.



Image: Amr Dalsh - Reuters



Image: ISM Palestine via Flickr


First it was a request to alter a scene that showed the effects of Israeli phosphorus and cluster bombing on the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut.


The scene had been in the script for years and demonstrated how phosphorus shrapnel continues to burn inside the body of its victim for days. The only recourse is to keep the wound soaked in water, a resource particularly scarce in war time. Also illustrated was how cluster bombs kill and maim.


In late 2011 Israeli interests objected to the depiction of chemical weapons.


Immediately director Eran Riklis insisted “This must be out of the script”.  American producer Frederick Ritzenberg suggested it was “Best to avoid controversy... it will detract from the film.”


The chemical weapons were written out reluctantly with the hope that this was the end of it. After all, Eran had been sending notes since 2008 and it was reasonable to assume he had plenty of time to make all the major adjustments he needed to the screenplay.


By the time shooting started, all the hospital scenes showing the effects of Israeli air raids on the population of the camps were completely eliminated.






Goodbye Collaboration


Other changes followed that were inaccurate at best, politically motivated, and (sadly) racist at worst. Once objections were raised based on years of researching the subject matter as well as personal experience, all guise of cooperation disappeared.


When it mattered most, the mirage of equality between Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints vanished.


The film making process turned into a microcosm of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict itself. Only Israeli concerns were addressed, Israeli opinions expressed, and Israeli versions of history permitted.


Alternate perspectives were simply unacceptable. And no measure of carefully documented alarm made an iota of difference.







A Silenced Partner and Equity Investor



Image: via Flickr


My position as 25% partner in Zaytoun Rights LTD, the company that owns the rights to the film, carried no weight.


My status as an equity investor after the deferral of the writer fee to help alleviate a financing shortfall, carried no weight.


Yet Israeli voices with 0% partnership and less equity came through loud and clear.





Your Opinion Matters


Differences in opinion are part of everyday life and no less so in the making of a film. How these differences are handled is what differentiates a collaborative effort from a disharmonious one.


What follows is a small sampling of late alterations made to the script (within a couple of weeks of shooting) that this Palestinian writer objected to, while thoroughly documenting the reasoning.


The expectation was that this would lead to intelligent discussion and mutually agreeable resolution. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort materialized.




The readers should decide for themselves whether these modifications are rooted in filmic decisions and creative differences, or in something entirely different.









The Opening Slide




When this opening slide appeared in the screenplay, the production was immediately informed verbally and in writing that the “rocket attacks” portion was incorrect.


A ceasefire had been in place for several months before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and was “largely adhered to by the PLO”. References from journalists in the region and a thorough search of The Jerusalem Post were provided as evidence. Compromise wording was offered… and ignored.


The opening slide that made it to screen presents Israeli’s version of history… which is factually incorrect.


What might seem as an innocuous discrepancy is in fact dangerous misinformation because it justifies Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The invasion killed 19,000 people and injured 30,000. Most victims were civilians. An inordinate percentage of them were children under age 15.


The Israeli invasion and consequent siege of Beirut produced the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps. This horrific event, excised from the end of the screenplay by the Israeli director, led to the dispatch of US marines to Beirut.


Americans need no reminder of how that ended.




Israeli Air Raids


The original screenplay portrayed Israeli air raids as described by witnesses and by those unfortunate enough to have suffered through them. What ended up on screen was an oddly limited, highly sanitized version of what was described in the screenplay. It didn’t even begin to express the true nature of an Israeli air raid.





Image: jimforest via Flickr


While researching the subject matter, I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Dr. Chris Giannou, chief surgeon of the International Committee of the Red Cross, author of ‘Beseiged: A Doctor’s Story of Life and Death in Beirut’, and member of the ‘Order of Canada’. Dr. Giannou who spent years with the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and treated an Israeli pilot shot down over South Lebanon, told me that when the Israeli air raids came “the earth would tremble”. Another camp resident described being in an air raid as “having the fillings knocked out of your teeth”.







The script tried to capture the power of air raids by showing their human toll; lines of desperate camp residents waiting to get into inadequate shelters; children separated from parents in the chaos; hospitals overflowing with civilians struck with life altering mutilations; accurate depictions of phosphorus and cluster bomb injuries; even the guilt-suppressed joy of surviving the raid unharmed. All of this was circumspectly excised from the screenplay.


Air raids have a psychological impact that lasts well after the visible wounds heal. They forge the identity of their victims and affect their actions for a lifetime. Portraying the air raids accurately is essential to helping the audience get into the mind of our main character Fahed, and helping the pilot Yoni start to question his own involvement. The selective portrayal of violence, endemic in the film, does a terrible disservice to victims of air raids and even to the perpetrators themselves who are never forced to face the true effects of their actions.








 The Mathematics of the Portrayal of Violence


Final Film = (Original Screenplay) minus (Israeli Violence) plus (Arab Violence).

Final Film Violence Count: Arabs 22. Israelis 6.


Arab violence shown in the film is personal, graphic and unprovoked.

a-      A child shot by Lebanese snipers dying of said injuries. [Added by Israeli director]





b-    A woman shot in cold blood by an Arab Militia. [Added by Israeli director]





c-     A Palestinian firing into the water when a child he knows and a high value Israeli prisoner may be down there. [Added by Israeli director]





d-    Arabs committing a group execution. [Added then thankfully removed]



What little Israeli violence that is shown in the film is sterile, necessary and justified. The use of phosphorus and cluster weaponry in congested civilian areas described in the original script was censored out. The killing of Fahed’s best friend in an Israeli phosphorous air raid was changed to his being shot by a Lebanese militia.


Palestinians view Israeli violence as barbaric and unjustified in exactly the same way that Israelis view Palestinian violence as barbaric and unjustified. And no-one likes their misdeeds publicized.


But is it appropriate to add scenes of Arabs killing women and children in cold blood while in the preceding keystroke eliminating the true nature of Israeli air raids?


Why is it deemed acceptable to show Arab violence not Israeli violence? Is it not dehumanizing? Does it not send a message that this set of people is somehow less civilized than those flying overhead dropping half ton bombs on crowded cities?






Child Soldiering


Of the kids that join Hamas, a Palestinian group classified as ‘terrorist’ by Israel and the US, most joined because of something they saw, or something that happened to them, a relative or a friend at the hands of the Israelis. This is powerfully captured in the HBO Documentary ‘Death in Gaza’ and the unflinchingly honest ‘Gaza Strip’ by James Longley.


The original script tried to capture this same theme by having Fahed initially avoid training only to attend after his father is killed. This was altered to PLO fighters trolling the camp until they corner Fahed and his friends… aka… forced child soldiering.


The situation was changed from an unfortunate circumstance to a negative reflection of the Palestinians in the eyes of the audience.





The training scenes in the film were shot in the town of Kaffer Qassem in what is now Israel, using local Palestinian kids. What I witnessed standing just out of the camera’s view were kids, often overmatched by the weight of their fake weapons, dragging them around the field complaining about the heat and groaning loudly when they heard the director’s dreaded words “one more time”.


The script tried to capture the hopeless nature of such training especially in the face of such overwhelming Israeli weaponry. And it was very pleasing to see it come to life right there on set for everyone including the camera to see.




Inexplicably, what ended up on film was the portrayal of a professional operation where hordes of kids are indoctrinated in hate. There isn’t a hint of hopeless incompetence among them. Reality once again lost out to selective editing.









“Everybody Kill Everybody Here… Welcome to Beirut”


This line is delivered by the Lebanese taxi driver moments after witnessing an innocent woman shot in cold blood in the street by a group of Arab men.


I did not write this racist and dehumanizing line. I objected strongly to it, and offered less insulting alternatives. Neither the Israeli director, nor the British or American producers could understand why the line is nothing more than a demeaning Western viewpoint of the Arab world. They would not perform a simple post edit to remove it.


The offending line plays over a CLOSEUP of the Israeli pilot humanely reacting to the senseless murder he just witnessed. The original screenplay called for woman to be harassed, not killed. And the original screenplay called for the Israeli pilot to humanely react to witnessing the Arab victims of an Israeli air raid. That hospital scene was never filmed.









‘ HOME ’ - A Four Letter Word


For over a decade the climactic line in the screenplay that Fahed expresses upon reaching his ancestral land was “Baba… I’m home”.


In the film, the action builds to this all important moment for our main character, and then bizarrely he utters “Baba… I’m here”.




The difference between ‘home’ and ‘here’ is a mere two letters. But the disparity in meaning is infinite.


I was told that the four letter word ‘home’ was ‘too political’. So the word ‘home’ that had been in the script for over ten years is ‘too political’ whereas removing it at the last instant without any discussion is not political at all.


There isn’t a Palestinian refugee alive that doesn’t see Palestine as his or her ‘home’.  It has been that way for 65 years and will be that way for the next 65.


It is strangely apropos that Israeli influence censored this word. Since 1948 Israel has denied Palestinian refugees their actual physical home. We have now progressed to a point where Israel is able to deny them the word itself.






Border Benevolence


In decades of travelling the gauntlet of Israeli border crossings and checkpoints I have never been offered a cozy room with a bunk bed, a warm shower, new clothes, and food and drink service. So when the border scene was changed to include these acts of Israeli benevolence, it was quite disorienting.


More typical to Palestinian experiences at border crossings might be hours trapped in an overcrowded bus in the hot desert, with children desperate to use the bathroom. When a kid poked their nose out the bus to piss in the sand, an IDF soldier shouts and points a gun at them. Problem solved. Wet pants dry quickly in the desert heat.




Clearly Palestinian and Israeli perspectives on border crossings are different. And it was the Israeli perspective that won out and made it to screen. No dialogue. No discussion. No attempt to understand.






Ahh… The Smell of Roses



Image: via Flickr





The most common feedback this writer heard at Palestinian showings of the film was:


“Wow. Those Israelis sure came out smelling like roses in your movie.”


The original screenplay was not written to demonize anyone. It was written as a Palestinian view of Israeli actions in the hope that understanding this view would benefit the overall situation.


Palestinian attitudes towards Israel did not form in a vacuum. They were molded by the loss of a homeland, expulsion of an indigenous population, disproportionate violence, illegal settlements, separation barriers, land grabs, human rights violations, etc. In all, 65 years of less than ingratiating actions by Israel suffered through daily by Palestinians, and witnessed across the region in the Arab press.


While neither opposing viewpoint is without its bias and prejudice, the Israeli stance always seems to find unfettered access to Western media, whereas the Palestinian view is restricted, as it was once again in this film.






Filmic vs Political Disagreements


All writers chafe at changes made by the director and writer-director filmic disagreements are common. It is very reasonable to suggest that a first time writer step aside and allow the more experienced director final and only say in all filmic decisions. And director Eran Riklis made numerous filmic changes that not only met the production challenges but managed to improve on what was in the script. For that he deserves appreciation and commendation.



Is it reasonable however that Israelis be given carte blanch in all decisions involving political censorship, historical accuracy, racial portrayals and stereotypes?


Is it reasonable to set aside equality in Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints?

Is it reasonable to completely ignore Palestinian objections to things that are offensive while bending over backwards to alleviate Israeli concerns?


What follows is an example of a filmic disagreement that this writer concedes the director has sole right to decide. The example is included simply to illustrate the difference between the filmic and the political.




Fool’s Gold


Around minute 60 in the film the boy Fahed uses crude medicine to heal the pilot Yoni from an injury. Once the pilot regains consciousness there is a breakthrough moment as they shake hands and exchange names for the first time. It is an emotional high point in the film handled with great skill by the director and the wonderful actors.




As writer however, I balked at this change as soon as it appeared in the script. Why? Because it destroyed the carefully designed relationship arc between Fahed and Yoni.


Zaytoun differs from many films in that the script structure maps to the character relationship arc and not to the story line. It is the relationship between Fahed and Yoni that the audience invests in and that drives the story forward. To keep the audience engaged, their relationship must evolve gradually and unevenly in a hesitant two step forward one step back manner, as their prejudices and mistrust slowly dissolve.


This is especially true in the notoriously tricky second half of Act 2 where many films struggle. The instant the two become friends and the animosity between them disappears, the film is essentially over. No amount of artificial external dangers can hope to hold the audience’s attention.


The classic film ‘Defiant Ones’ and the spectacular Brazilian film ‘Central Station’ both delay the gratification of the relationship breakthrough until the middle of Act 3. Unfortunately in Zaytoun this moment comes too early and the film starts to flounder soon thereafter.


The script originally used an appreciative gesture by Yoni and a smart ass response by Fahed to inch their relationship forward, without the hand shake and name exchange that diffused the animosity between them all too easily and too early.


This is one of several examples of filmic disagreements that industry protocol dictates the director has the sole right to decide.






Censorship, Misinformation and Stereotype of Arabs


Having been excluded from the decision process that resulted in the last minute political changes to the screenplay, I cannot say whether they originated from the Israeli director himself or from an attempt by the filmmakers to appease Israeli powers that be.


What I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that zero equality was given to the opinion of this Palestinian partner, investor and writer.


And to the best of my knowledge the filmmakers did not seek approval from any Palestinian authority. Whereas it certainly seemed that just about every Israeli Ministry, Film Fund and Military Source had their say to ensure that nothing even remotely critical of Israel made it to screen.



Image: Andreia via Flickr






Why should Americans care?


Americans cherish the right to free speech and despise censorship.


In this instance the US public is finally catching a glimpse of the Palestinian viewpoint in film. Unfortunately it was filtered and heavily distorted through an Israeli lens.


For this grand experiment called democracy to work, Americans need an unbiased flow of information reaching them directly. They must hear both sides of an issue before making up their minds and supporting any specific foreign policy of this great nation. The United States is a staunch ally of Israel as evidenced by its consistently pro-Israel foreign policy, and the unwavering support bestowed upon Israel by Congress in the name of the American people.


If the information reaching the public is flawed in its bias, then the entire process is compromised. The global reputation of the United States will continue to be muddied by the actions of a single ally. And the American public will never understand why this country’s foreign policy is viewed negatively in the Arab world and beyond.







The Filmmakers


What makes this entire experience difficult to understand is that British producer Gareth Unwin, Israeli director Eran Riklis and American producer Frederick Ritzenberg are good people with good intentions. Their commitment to the film cannot be questioned, and it is doubtful that the project would have seen daylight without them.


Eran has a history of fair minded films that drew me to his directing in the first place.


Producer Fred Ritzenberg brought an academic compulsion for perfection necessary for the project to garner attention given its controversial subject matter.


Gareth Unwin in particular has a huge heart. He could have made any film he wanted after the tremendous success of ‘The King’s Speech’. He chose Zaytoun because he, like the rest of us, believed it would make a difference. He put his reputation on the line and irritated many a pro-Israeli by even considering a project about a Palestinian refugee’s urge to return home.


Why the Palestinian voice was allowed to be suppressed; why the script was changed to such an extent politically; and why the film was allowed to propagate dangerous stereotypes that plague our understanding of other cultures, remains unclear and is incredibly disheartening.


It certainly appears that none of the goodwill brought to the project was able to withstand the pressures of Israeli censorship, stereotype and misinformation.





Making a Difference


If Israelis and those who support them are unable or unwilling to be honest with themselves and with the world at large about Israel’s misdeeds, and the catastrophic effect that the very creation of the state of Israel has had on the Palestinian people, Palestinian culture, Palestinian history and Palestinian hopes for the future; then all the ‘forced feel good’ films in the world won’t make an ounce of difference.







Arthur James Balfour was British Prime Minister from 1902-1905, and British Foreign Secretary from 1916-1919. He is best known for his ‘Balfour Declaration’ made in November 1917, which essentially promised a homeland for the Jews in Palestine.


The following excerpt is from a memo sent by Balfour to the British Foreign Office in August 1919. It was the opening slide of the film for many years, and was the first thing the Israeli director insisted should be deleted. (Emphasis added).


“The contradiction between the letter of the Covenant and the policy of the Allies is even more flagrant in the case of the independent nation of Palestine… For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country...The four powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”


Far profounder import is an absolutely fascinating foundation upon which to shoehorn a country into a region.


Alas, it seems that not much has changed in Western relations to the Palestinians, or the Middle East in general, in the 95 years since the above words were written.


-Thank you for your time

-Zaytoun Writer







Why did you agree to an Israeli director?

Eran has a track record of even handedness and humanity in his films. And I was told that having an Israeli director would increase the probability the film would acquire US distribution. Also, the producers repeatedly promised that all of my concerns would be addressed. The resulting process was a very unpleasant shock.


Why didn’t you speak out earlier?

My reaction when I first saw the film was to take my name off the credits. I was informed that it was too late to do that. I tried to express my views in the production notes sent to media outlets as part of the press package in the hope that it would generate constructive dialogue. This was disallowed and deemed “commercially dangerous”. Speaking out then necessarily took a back seat to our parents’ health. 2013 was a very difficult year for our family.


What reaction do you expect from the film makers to your comments?

Some combination of:

            “We are proud of the film.”

            “There was no external Israeli influence.”

            “All decisions were filmic.”

            “All differences were creative.”

            “Compromises are always necessary in film making.”

            “He’s a first time writer and doesn’t understand the process and the industry.”

            “There’s no satisfying these people.” etc.


Are you proud of the film?

Writing the screenplay was empowering. It allowed free expression of the Palestinian voice. That a top quality international team signed on to make the film was reason for optimism because it meant that: people do understand; they do care; and therefore there is hope. The enduring low point is the realization that this is not the case. And the shame is in having ignored the ample concerns of all those who warned, “You’re naïve to believe this (or that) will ever make it to screen!”


At least you helped the Palestinian economy. Isn’t that something?

The production team did include some Palestinians living in Israel who worked on the film. To the best of my knowledge however: none of the film’s budget was spent in the West Bank or Gaza; no Palestinian refugee benefited economically in any way from the film; and none of the filmmakers so much as visited a refugee camp.


What is the worst thing for you?

Knowing that with the films commercial struggles, no-one is likely to touch the subject matter again.


You violated the Israel cultural boycott. What has the reaction been?

I have had to answer questions like… “So… You trusted a Brit, an American and an Israeli with a Palestinian story and you’re surprised at how it turned out?”


Are you saying that Jews control the media?

I have no interest in such broad claims. The readers should decide for themselves whether Israeli influence controlled this particular film.


Weren’t you just trying to make Israel look bad?

The original screenplay simply pointed out Israel’s well documented actions.


What have you learned by making this film?

1-      Censorship is incredibly easy when you control the keyboard… <Double Click><Delete> Done!

2-      Never let go of the keyboard.


What in your mind is the root cause of the Palestinian Israeli conflict?

Inequality, that often crosses into racism. And the seeming inability of people that live safely in their own countries to understand the physical, mental and spiritual importance of a homeland.


What in your mind is the solution to the Palestinian Israeli conflict?

Equality, that never approaches racism. It’s the one thing that hasn’t been tried.


Do you plan to write again?

It is difficult to describe the disillusionment of working 20 years to get the film made only to have Israeli influence upend the message in about 20 minutes. (All offending changes were made in the last few weeks before shooting started.) I would not choose to put myself in that position again.


Do you really think speaking out will make a difference?

Nope. But I’d be happy to be wrong.




Reference Books

‘One Day at a Time: Diaries from a Palestinian Camp’,                                Suzy Wighton

‘Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon’,                                                 Robert Fisk.

‘Beseiged: A Doctor’s Story of Life and Death in Beirut’,                              Dr. Chris Giannou

‘Palestine’, (Comics journalism)                                                                     Joe Sacco




‘Death in Gaza’                                               HBO Documentary Films.

‘Gaza Strip’                                                      James Longley.

‘Journey to the Occupied Lands’                     PBS Frontline.

 ‘Five Broken Cameras’                                   Academy Award nominee Best Documentary 2012.                              Academy Award nominee Best Documentary 2002.



Do your own internet research. Just be aware of bias in the source.



Spend time in the West Bank, Gaza (if you can get in) or in any Palestinian refugee camp. Contrary what you might be led to believe, no-one will eat you, and you will gain a depth of understanding impossible to attain from across the ocean. Then come home and share what you have learned with anyone that will listen.



© Zaytoun Writer - 2014 - All Rights Reserved