The director talks about working with Stephen Dorff, going beyond the headlines, and discovering child actors.

Eran Riklis adds to what he calls his ‘Middle East Cycle’ (after The Syrian Bride and Lemon Tree) with Zaytoun, the story of an unlikely road trip undertaken between an Israeli fighter pilot (Stephen Dorff) and a Palestinian boy (Abedallah El Akal) in 1982. The film premieres in Toronto today; Pathe handles sales. The project is produced by Gareth Unwin (The King’s Speech) and Fred Ritzenberg.

Up next for Riklis will be another Middle Eastern story, Dancing Arabs, plus a bigger-budget European-set thriller.

What was it with this story that you connected to?

You have these horrible situations which are part of life in the Middle East, and sometimes you can go down to eye level and forget about political conceptions and prejudice, bad history and blood, and bring it into something simple, accessible and understandable. It’s a glimpse behind the headlines, into lives of people.

What drew you to cast Stephen Dorff?

With Stephen, there was something about his physique and his type, and I thought, I know a lot of pilots like that. Stephen’s talent and ambition are to be very precise. We worked a lot on giving this character a world, even if you don’t see it, you feel it. I love every moment he’s on screen, it’s a wonderful performance.

What about casting the young boy?

I found Abedallah a few years ago on a short film, he was about 10 years old then. I thought he had a natural talent and something unique…So now Abduallah had really grown up and maybe he was overconfident and was almost too much of an actor.  Now I had to say, ‘forget Tel Aviv, forget the movies you’ve been in, you’re now a kid in a refugee camp in 1982, this is you now.’

For me he can be a world caliber star. Maybe it’s not for me to say but I feel there’s not one second in the film where you feel it’s contrived or mechanical.

Without giving away the ending, was this always the way you knew the film had to end?

It’s a bittersweet ending. It’s that kind of story you can go in many directions. But the reality is not easy. It certainly wasn’t easy in 1982 and it’s not easy today.

I don’t like big messages I like subtle messages…I present the stories, the characters, the situations, but you as an audience make a decision with where you want to go. At the end of the day it’s about putting all those issues aside and staying with two people.