The Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis is sitting comfortably behind a cup of coffee and a capacious salad in an Upper West Side café. Although it is one of the hottest days of the year, he looks unusually cool and collected, a husky teddy bear of a man with an easy smile. His appearance fits with the warm humanism of his films, particularly his family-friendly latest, “Zaytoun.”
The film centers on the growing relationship between Yoni, an Israeli pilot (Stephen Dorff in a tastefully restrained performance), and Fahed (Abdallah El Akal,) a 12-year-old Palestinian refugee who helps him escape from his PLO captors during the first Lebanon war. One would think, given the close resemblance to his early success with “Cup Final,” which had a similar plot, that Riklis would have passed on this project when it was offered to him. Add to that a first-time screenwriter, Nader Rizq, and it’s hard to imagine the veteran filmmaker taking it on.
He admits as much himself.
“It’s a territory I’ve been to before,” he says. “I read the script and made a lot of comments and sent it back to them. They came back to me two years later, and they’d implemented every one of my suggestions.”
They’d also brought on board the British producer Gareth Unwin (“The King’s Speech”). That definitely got Riklis’ attention.
The potential for treacle in a project like this is daunting, but Riklis has developed a deft touch with such material, as have reminiscent of Leo McCarey (“Duck Soup,” “The Awful Truth”) and other directors adept at mixing laughs with tears without making an audience gag.
“You try to make it delicate,” Riklis says. “Try to keep it simple, and try to keep your own balance throughout the mayhem of the filmmaking process. But you should never be afraid of emotions.”
“Zaytoun” opens Sept. 20 at the Lincoln Plaza (62nd St. and Broadway) and the City Cinemas Village East (Second Ave. and 12th St.).