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In the West Bank, confronting pain and oppression with humor and absurdity

“Let It Be Morning,” the latest film from Eran Kolirin, the Israeli director best-known for his 2007 comedy “The Band’s Visit,” is another gently absurd comedy with a majority Arab cast. The film, which had its world premiere in Un Certain Régard at the Cannes Film Festival, is about Sami, a Palestinian telecom executive, who finds himself unable to go back to Jerusalem, where he works and lives, after returning to his village in the West Bank for his brother’s wedding. Cut off from the outside world, Sami finds himself in a strange holding pattern as he shelters in place with people from his previous life and repeatedly drives to the Israeli checkpoint in the hopes of getting cellphone reception to call his boss and his Israeli mistress.

In Cannes, the director attended without his actors, who had decided to protest a recent Israeli law that requires films that receive government funding to announce themselves as Israeli productions. (Half of the 4-million-shekel budget for “Let It Be Morning” came from the Israeli government.)

In lieu of the cast, the 47-year-old director appeared on the stage of the Thêatre Claude Debussy with an Etrog-like lemon on a massive vine that he had purchased at a local covered market.

Let It Be Morning

Let It Be Morning: The latest film from the director of “The Band’s Visit” concerns a Palestinian telecom executive, who finds himself unable to go back to Jerusalem, where he works and lives. Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Let’s start with the actors’ decision not to come to Cannes.

I think it’s a very dignified decision of protest. I never go onstage and say, “Hey, I present to you my Israeli film.” The only actual reason for this recent law was to prevent and forbid Palestinian citizens of Israel, when they make a film – which is made from their own tax money like everyone else’s and who are supposed to be equal citizens – from presenting their own national identity. So, the cast of the film did not want to be culturally erased. They decided to make a protest with their absence. Of course, I respect that and support their actions.

Was the Cannes festival itself opposed to calling this an Israeli-Palestinian production?

It has nothing to do with Cannes. It’s about a specific direction and attitude of the Israeli government.

It’s been a while since your last film, “Beyond the Mountains and the Hills” premiered in Cannes in 2016, also in the Un Certain Régard section. How long have you been working on “Let It Be Morning?”

I started working on the film seven years ago, with intense work over the past four years. I actually finished the editing before COVID started. It was accepted to Cannes last year, but we decided to wait.

Since so much of the film is about the experience of confinement and living under lockdown, I’m surprised to hear that it was completed before the pandemic. That scene where Sami, the main character played by Alex Bakri, goes to the market and there’s nothing on the shelves but batteries and Christmas lights felt eerily reminiscent of aspects of our own life not too long ago.

Yes, I’m shocked about how relevant it became.

Like all your films, “Let It Be Morning” deals with serious themes with a tone of gentle absurdity.

There would have been many ways to make a film about this topic. There is real pain in the film, but lots of moments of people coming together and veering past each other in funny ways.

Was it a challenge to get the tone right?

It was tough. It was a really specific journey finding the actors, convincing them and working with them and developing the script before we found the right feeling. It pretty much came together with the script and the editing. It’s like a little theater with all those little absurd things that are kind of revolving around the same theme of being locked and being internally locked. It took time until it resonated in a good way.

One of my favorite touches is the scene where Sami circles the village with two watermelons under his arms. He shlepps them around for so long, you almost forget about them.

What I like to do is to give different layers to each scene. You could have something that’s very cruel, like when Sami gets headbutted by that huge guy, but he’s still stuck with two watermelons, so it always makes the scenes a bit quirky and a bit unbalanced. I also love watermelons and I had them in “The Band’s Visit,” so I thought: Why not use some watermelons again?

You’d rather use the comic and the absurd to make a film about pain and oppression. Can you talk about those choices?

First of all, I think in tough situations people always have more humor. It’s one of our survival tools, just looking at the absurdity. And it’s my own personal tendency to laugh.

Sami, the main character played by Alex Bakri, is an unusual figure to see portrayed in Israeli cinema. He studied, lives and works in Israel. You even give him an Israeli mistress! His family’s reaction – especially his wife’s reaction – is unusual and unexpected. No one considers him a traitor for sleeping with the enemy.

Even though he has the elements of a traitor, as you said, he lives in both worlds. In tense situations, some people cling stronger to their ideologies and others just see that life has no sense, so you might as at least have some fun while you’re at it. The mother is just a practical human being and worried about her son, not about ideology. On a more general level, the movie has a lot about love and relearning to love each other by accepting one another and also accepting yourself.

The Palestinian village in the film is supposed to be outside of Jerusalem, and towards the end of the film, a portion of the border wall springs up overnight. Where did you actually shoot the film?

We filmed up north, close to the border with Lebanon. And the border wall you see is a combination of reconstruction and CGI. I didn’t want to village to feel like a specific place. I wanted it to be like “once upon a time somewhere in a small village” without precise signposts.

It must be awful as an Israeli filmmaker to always be asked about the political situation when what you’re here to discuss is your film.

It’s OK. It’s part of life. I think there’s no real distinction between the personal, as you can see in the film. It’s all part of the same thing.

Where do you stand on BDS?

First of all, their goal is right, so I respect it. I cannot tell anyone how to behave. It’s not natural for me. My way is to collaborate, to speak, to be open, but I will not judge other people’s struggles. It’s their struggle and it’s manifested in this way and I would hope that the right way to go about it is not just saying how wrong it is but maybe also trying to hear what the goals and reasons behind it are.

Have any of the Palestinian and Arab actors in film been accused of collaboration?

I don’t know about any direct accusations, but what I do know, what I do feel, is that there’s a lot of concern about how they will be perceived. It’s a very tense conflict and those establishments are working in a very strict and rough way that is, for me, not always acceptable. But the problem is that when you speak softly nobody listens to you.

Have you seen Nadav Lapid’s new film “Ahed’s Knee?”

Not yet, but I really liked “Synonyms.”

The premise of Lapid’s new film is a filmmaker who wages a self-destructive battle against a minor incident that he feels contain the seeds of government censorship.

It’s not detached from reality. This is how it’s starting to be. For me, there was no limitation because, at the end of the day, [in Israel] a lot works on self-censorship because they produce all these strange kinds of laws, like this law of presentation, with no real meaning except for telling you that someone is watching what you’re saying. The last Minister of Culture [Miri Regev] was very tough, but hopefully it’s getting better now.

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