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Birds, we are told by a researcher from the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, are attracted to the holy city because it lies along a rift valley between Africa, Asia and Europe. Israel and its neighbouring countries are a “mecca for bird migration” but, as he says with a wry smile, “once they touch ground, they become either Israeli or Palestinian birds, and all hell breaks loose.”

Fadia’s Tree, a documentary by English director Sarah Beddington, follows the story of people displaced by such labels. It weaves migratory birds into the story of Fadia, a Palestinian refugee who settled in Lebanon after her family were forced to flee their village, Sa’sa’, in 1948 when it was attacked by the Palmach.

Beddington, by dint of her nationality, has access to Fadia’s ancestral home and is implored by her to travel there and find the old mulberry tree that grew next to Fadia’s grandfather’s house. Fadia has little hope that the house itself still stands, and even if it did, the thought of other families living in it seems almost too difficult to contemplate. But the tree remains a symbol of what was once theirs, with literal roots in the place they long to return to.

The film’s politics are visible but not heavy-handed. This is not so much an attack on Israel’s occupation as a universal portrait of displacement. The conversations with the ornithologists and footage of flocks sweeping across the breaking dawn remind us of how yearning for one’s homeland stretches far beyond borders. The apolitical researchers, who care only for meticulous data, make for playful contrast with Fadia and her family, who keep birds on the rooftop and in one particularly moving scene release them and talk of how they may soon reach Damascus or even Palestine. The thought of some small part of her reaching Palestinian soil is almost too joyous for Fadia to bear; the closest she can get is to a viewing tower by the Lebanese border, where she and many other refugees gather to look down the valley to the edge of Palestine.

For all the displays of emotion, Fadia’s Tree never veers into the melodramatic. Beddington holds her camera still, and lingers on simple images of branches, birds or Fadia at sunset, granting the film a gentle melancholy. The bond between filmmaker and subject isn’t disguised, and as the years pass and Beddington’s search for the tree continues, she becomes just as invested in the search as Fadia does, making it all the more painful that Fadia, unlike Bennington or the flocks of birds, won’t be able to return home.

► Fadia’s Tree is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.