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Undeniably, a great film — but is it Israeli? Or Palestinian? Or both?

“Is the film Israeli? Or is it Palestinian?”

This is the question I’ve been asked more than any other as I’ve shared my excitement about Eran Kolirin’s film “Let It Be Morning,” based on the novel by Sayed Kashua. It tells the story of a fictional Arab village in Israel that goes under lockdown at an inopportune moment – and has begun making early Oscars buzz.

The answer to this question is both simple and complicated. The Holon-born Israeli director Eran Kolirin rejects the notion overall: “I think the question is absurd to begin with,” he said in an interview this year. “Movies do not have identities; films are citizens of the screen. Our identities are always complex: I don’t think the word Israeli covers my entire identity. This question is forced upon us by the propaganda system.”

“The term ‘Israeli film’ has no meaning,” he said. “Have you ever seen Scorsese going onstage to present ‘his American film’? Categorization is a fluid question.”

But how and why is categorization fluid for this film, here and now? These are the questions that have occupied my mind since I first learned about this film, even before I’d seen it.

Let it be morning TK

A wedding scene from the film “Let It Be Morning.” Courtesy of Other Israel Film Festival

Let’s begin here: There are many things about the film that make it Israeli. “Let It Be Morning” was made in Israel with public funding from the Israeli Film Fund, with a cast and crew of almost entirely Israeli citizens. It is based on a novel by a famous novelist and television writer who is a citizen of Israel and writes in Hebrew. The film, which won nine Ophir awards (Israeli Academy), including Best Picture, is Israel’s official submission to the Academy Awards. So simply speaking, the film is Israeli.

But “Let It Be Morning” is not simple and the film’s identity — like those of its writers, cast and crew — cannot be defined solely by citizenship. The film is also Palestinian. Although the director and a handful of other key creatives are Jewish, the vast majority of the cast and crew are Palestinian citizens of Israel, among the 22% of Israel’s citizenry who are Palestinian Arabs, sometimes referred to as “Israeli Arabs,” sometimes colloquially as “48-ers” (because they are from those Palestinian families who remained within the newly-formed State of Israel following the war of 1948, which exists in Palestinian memory as the Nakba: the great catastrophe).

The film’s Palestinian cast chose not to attend the Cannes Film Festival, protesting what they felt to be cooptation and erasure by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which tends to tout critical films in order to bolster its image as a thriving democracy. When the film won at the Ophir Awards, director Eran Kolirin and producer Keren Michael — both Jewish Israelis — read speeches by the film’s Palestinian stars, Alex Bakri and Juna Suleiman. In Suileiman’s speech, and delivered by Kolirin, she said: “Normally I would be expected to feel happy and grateful for this award, but unfortunately that’s not possible when there are efforts underway to completely erase Palestinian identity and the collective pain I carry with me into every role that I play.”

From the first frame, it is clear that this is a Palestinian-Israeli story told on Palestinian terms. Set in a fictional village that seems to be located in “The Triangle,” an area nestled in the foothill hinterland between Tel Aviv and Haifa with the largest concentration of Arab villages and towns inside Israel, the film introduces us to Sami (Alex Bakri), his wife Mira (Juna Suleiman) and son Adam, who are returning to Sami’s hometown from their successful life in Jerusalem for his younger brother’s wedding.

During the wedding, we understand that a house is being built for Sami and his family, part of a family fantasy that he will one day return to the village with his wife and child. The workers building the house are a father and son, undocumented Palestinian laborers from the West Bank, sometimes disparagingly referred to as “Dafawii” by 48-ers, who seem to be camping out in the construction site while they work. When Sami and his family are stopped unexpectedly at a checkpoint and turned back, the child Adam asks his mother “What is Dafawi?”

“They’re Palestinians just like us,” she says. “But don’t say that word again, it’s a bad word.”

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

Language plays a huge role in this film – it, too, represents resistance. Unlike the book it was based on, the film “Let It Be Morning” is almost completely in Arabic. Just three and a half years ago, the Israeli Knesset demoted Arabic from being an official language of the State of Israel to a lesser status as part of legislation intended to reinforce the premise that the country is for Jews only.

During floor debates in the Knesset, Palestinian members of Knesset from the Joint List, which represents Palestinian citizens of Israel, stood up and tore a copy of the law to shreds, shouting “Apartheid.” Meanwhile, then-members of Israel’s right-wing parliamentary coalition stood and cheered.

“Let It Be Morning” goes beyond the Arabic language to showcase Palestinian identity and narrative by embedding the story with Palestinian symbols and references. This is also a kind of resistance against identity erasure. During the lockdown, Sami, Mira and Adam walk up to a hilltop in the village to fly a kite, and Mira brags to their son that his father, Sami, is an excellent kite-flyer. Kites are one of the most common symbols of freedom in Palestinian art and activism. As Sami takes off with the kite, the shot takes a lower angle — almost looking up at him as he turns his head upward to see the kite in the sky above and behind him.

I froze watching the scene: the shot of Sami was a clear reference to a famous image of Bassem “Pheel” Abu Rahme, an activist and community leader from the West Bank town of Bil’in. Pheel was a teacher and was often seen around the West Bank village during the years that the Separation Wall was being built, flying kites with children. After he was murdered by a soldier in a weekly protest in the village, a photo of Bassem was turned into a poster in his honor. The photo was taken from below and shows him looking up and behind at the kite he is flying, children running next to him.

(Kites were also a powerful symbol of protest in Gaza wherewith teenagers who have lived their entire lives under siege sometimes attaching incendiary materials and launching kites across the fence into Israeli fields.)

This isn’t the film’s only symbol of Palestinian resistance. Later, Sami is walking on the main street of the village with his son when they are confronted by an acquaintance carrying watermelons. Watermelon imagery sprouted up on social media this past May in connection with forced evictions of Palestinians from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, but its history goes back much further. In 1967, Israel outlawed any public expression of the Palestinian flag and its colors — red, green, white and black. In 1980, following the closure of an art gallery in Ramallah due to the presence of “political art,” artist Sleiman Mansour began painting watermelons as a symbol of resistance.

This was popularized by artist Khaled Hourani’s silkscreen series “The Story of the Watermelon,” and more recently revived by the younger generation of activists and artists. (Just a few months ago I was visiting with friends in Lod for dinner. When they put out watermelon for dessert we burst out laughing, recognizing that even our dessert couldn’t escape politics.)

These references to Palestinian resistance have been seamlessly incorporated into what is ultimately a delicate and personal film. To me, it feels like they are Easter eggs for Palestinian spectators. Without alienating other viewers, these subtle moments deliver the message that this Israeli film is also for and by Palestinians.

“Let It Be Morning” is a stunning film, a world-class cinematic work of art worthy of recognition at the Oscars. But like everything about it, there are layers and layers to its depth. In the opening shot, we see an Arab wedding from the perspective of caged doves waiting to be released into freedom. As the film concludes, we see Palestinian-Israelis in their village under lockdown, also waiting to be released into freedom.

The final shot of the film is a masterpiece: When the villagers finally galvanize to tear down the wall that has been erected to imprison them, they discover it’s no longer there, raising the unanswered question: was it a mental wall all along? This is a very serious statement that poses both universal and particular questions about freedom, about physical and metaphysical subjugation, and what happens when we cross the threshold and become free. For the villagers in the film, as for the doves, is there more safety on the other side?

I often think about the late actor and activist Juliano Mer Khamis, a giant in the Palestinian art world who was murdered by an unknown assailant a decade ago in the Jenin Refugee Camp, where he established the Freedom Theater. Juliano had one Jewish parent and one Palestinian parent, making him the quintessential boundary-crosser and, to some, the perennial outsider-insider. When asked about his identity on Israeli radio, he replied: “I am 100% Palestinian and 100% Jewish.”

Maybe, like Juliano, “Let It Be Morning” is 100% Palestinian and 100% Israeli. It’s either that, or neither.

The stakes around this question are very high. Juliano ended up dead. Eran Kolirin has said that the proposition of taking on this project felt to him like “career suicide.” I hope that it isn’t. I hope that this film challenges the notion of who gets to tell an Israeli story, and whose reality counts. Because to me, Sami and Mira, and the actors who play them, and my friends in Lod, and the Members of Knesset who tore up the Nation-State Law are essential storytellers about Israel precisely because they are Palestinian citizens, and this story could not have been told by anyone else, or anywhere else.

If “Let It Be Morning” offers a way for that story and that identity to be 100% both, what the State of Israel itself is unwilling and incapable of doing, then it is worth every Academy Award.

Libby Lenkinski is Vice President for Public Engagement at New Israel Fund (NIF).

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