Eran Kolirin’s latest film, Let It Be Morning, which opened recently in theaters throughout Israel, swept the 2021 Ophir Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and almost all the acting awards, but the director blended in so well at a café in Tel Aviv last month that you would never have guessed that this soft-spoken guy in a sweater was one of Israel’s most successful directors. Not only has he won awards around the world for this film, which had its world premiere last year at the Cannes Film Festival, but his breakout movie, The Band’s Visit, accomplished an unprecedented feat for an Israeli film: It was adapted into a hit Broadway musical that swept the Tony Awards, winning 10. Clearly, he understands how to touch people’s hearts but he is also focused on making them think.
Although he knew that Let It Be Morning, which is set in the Arab community in Israel, was potentially more divisive than The Band’s Visit, a fish-out-of-water story about an Egyptian police orchestra that gets stranded in a tiny Negev town, he felt that if he presented the characters’ emotions truthfully, the power of their story would prevail.
“The root of the story is human,” he said. “These people are living under a certain set of circumstances, but their human reactions could have occurred almost anywhere.”
Let It Be Morning, which was produced by Dori Media in collaboration with Films du Poisson, is based on an acclaimed novel by Sayed Kashua, who brought him the book and suggested he adapt it for the screen. “I kept the emotion and feeling of the book but I made some changes in the story,” he said. “Sayed was very generous, he gave me a free hand in adapting it.”
The movie opens when an Arab hi-tech worker, Sami (Alex Bakri), who lives in Jerusalem, brings his wife, Mira (Juna Suleiman), and their young son home to his village for the wedding of his younger brother, Aziz (Samer Bisharat). At first, Sami seems to be a local son who has made good. His family, including his father (Salim Daw), are proud of him and hope he will move back.
But Sami is in a hurry to get home and see his girlfriend, with whom he has just arranged a rendezvous. When they try to leave, though, the village has been closed as the army searches for Palestinians from the West Bank who are there illegally, and even cell phone service has been cut off. Sami worries that both his boss and his girlfriend will give up on him. As the days go by, he is drawn back into the struggles of the village, including the encroachment of organized crime.
Thugs shake down his old buddy, Abed (Ehab Elias Salami), who is trying to make a living as a driver. The small village and even smaller house become more claustrophobic by the hour and after Mira discovers Sami was having an affair, the walls really close in.
THE RELATIONSHIP between Sami and Mira is a particularly effective component of the film and many feel that the very intense dance that Suleiman performs to give expression to the character’s frustration was one of the high points.
It turns out that the two actors have a history that may have helped ignite their on-screen chemistry. Suleiman, who is both an actress and a casting director, said she should play Juna and that her ex, Alex Bakri, should take the part of Sami. “She said, ‘He’s that guy... he’s a bit detached, he philosophizes about everything.’ He’s like water, she’s like fire. He is reserved, she is very confrontational... You can see their real dynamic in the movie.”
When he began the movie, Kolirin had no idea the pandemic was coming and that the whole world would go through an experience that would make this drama of being stuck even more relevant. There are scenes where the young bride, neglected by her groom for various reasons, becomes obsessed with cleaning everything with alco-gel. He wasn’t sure these scenes, which were filmed before the pandemic, would make it into the final cut. But during the editing, Kolirin realized, “We have to leave it in. The whole world has developed an obsession with purifying the environment.”
Another instance when the film was influenced by what was going on in the world was when most members of the cast refused to attend both the film’s world premiere in Cannes and the Ophir Awards ceremony where it – and they – were showered with awards. Kolirin spoke with his cast about their decision and supported them.
“We talked before Cannes,” he said, which took place shortly after the war with Gaza in May. “If you see what they wrote about the film before Cannes, they said, ‘We stand behind the film and are proud of it.’ There is no question about that... I said, ‘I will back you up no matter what in everything’ and they said, ‘We will back the film, but we will use it to highlight our problem... We don’t accept the term Arab Israeli, which is forced on us, that’s not who we are, we are Palestinians.’” Kolirin released their statements on his Facebook page. He felt their decision was “a non-violent form of protest. It’s very fair... It was so obvious that this film would face this question.”
Asked whether he felt Let It Be Morning might be complicated for audiences abroad to understand, he conceded that there could be an issue for some people. “My films, they try to give a very nuanced personal point of view, I see that abroad they need something so much more strict. They only now generally started to get the difference between Jews and Arabs, and now there have to be Palestinian citizens and non-citizens, and it’s like, too much,” he said, laughing. Speaking about the United States, he said, “For a nation so obsessed with identity politics, it’s funny that they have so little grasp of the differences between people.”
In spite of these concerns, he is happy about how audiences at home and abroad have responded to the film. “At the end of the day, it’s about emotions and human beings. It’s obvious people will talk about politics, I would expect that. But, it touches people on both sides because it tells a certain human story, and even if it sounds kind of naïve, even today there are stories that transcend the questions of your specific identity... I think this film goes straight to the heart.”