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“Let It Be Morning” is a quiet film that builds to a powerful ending. A steady accumulation of everyday detail gets it to where it needs to go. You could even say that the entire point of writer/director Eran Kolirin’s new movie is to show that, even during tense political crises where violence could erupt at any second, people still have to tend to their ordinary lives.
Kolirin, a Jewish Israeli filmmaker best known for his 2007 international hit “The Band’s Visit,” steps outside of his comfort zone. He’s adapted a novel by a Palestinian writer from Israel, Sayed Kashua, about a Palestinian family that holds Israeli citizenship. The main story is set in a small village in the days following a wedding. When Israeli military forces block the only road out of town, members of the wedding party visiting from elsewhere (mainly Jerusalem) have to turn around from the checkpoint, go back to the village, and wait. Much of the film is about confinement, both as a physical fact and an emotional condition. “Let It Be Morning” establishes this in its opening moment, a tracking shot that seems to float through the wedding reception, the camera peering through thin vertical bars.
At first, it seems as if we might be looking through the protective grille of a helmet, but it’s the point-of-view of caged doves that are eventually supposed to take flight to exalt the couple’s union. Revelers lift the bride Lina (Yara Elham Jarrar), and the groom Aziz (Samir Bishirat), over their heads and carry them around the dance floor. We meet Aziz’s sad-seeming older brother Sami (Alex Bakri), who is visiting from Jerusalem, where he has a cushy tech executive job, a wife and young son who have accompanied him, and a mistress that he secretly texts. Sami’s wife Mira (Juna Suleiman) is frustrated that Sami doesn’t touch her anymore but suppresses her instincts about what that might mean.
We meet Sami and Aziz’s brother-in-law Nabil (Doraid Liddawi), the husband of their only sister Rola (Areen Saba); Nabil is the head of the town council, and as the story goes on, we learn how centrally important he is to the community’s daily life. We also glimpse the mother of the groom, Zahera (Izabel Ramadan), and her husband, Tarek (Salim Daw). Tarek is a loving but fierce and judgmental patriarch who is obsessed with history and tradition. He wants Sami to take over the family compound and live there with his wife and son. Tarek’s son-in-law seems to be angling for that spot in the family pecking order as well, but Tarek doesn’t like him for reasons that become increasingly clear.
Most of the story is anchored to the older brother Sami, a smart, sharply dressed, good-looking fellow who uses silence to mask his discomfort over returning home and being the man he is. (“I’m not a good person,” he later admits.) It’s through Sami that the film intertwines the personal and political elements of the story and illustrates how they’re the same.
Before this movie was released, Kolirin told journalists that he expected to get in trouble for being an Israeli Jewish artist with the chutzpah to make a film about an Israeli Arab family—not just because the Israeli presence in the territories is a third-rail topic all over the globe, but also because the novel delves into class tensions within the community that make it hard for its members to agree on whether to take up arms or keep their heads down.
Radicals have other words for the second approach, such as collaboration and cowardice. Both are used during heated moments in this film, which takes care to show how certain people in town—especially Sami’s extended family, which is solidly upper-middle class—are worried that a confrontational strategy will make them lose all of their material gains (or worse—as we see when a family friend in the crowd that has gathered at the checkpoint loses his cool, jumps in his car, and drives at the soldiers).
The characters who own property and/or have steady jobs would never openly admit this, but they are uncomfortable being associated with poor and undocumented Arabs from the territories (represented by workers renovating Tarek’s house). Opening titles establish that the film is set during international tensions. We soon learn that the United States and Iran are at risk of war, and the Israeli government cites this as a reason to crack down on the workers for “security” reasons and deport them. Nabil thinks that if Arabs participate in the roundup (via armed locals driving around in flag-marked vehicles and abducting undocumented workers for turnover) it will prove their loyalty to the state. Tarek, an elder, believes this is folly—that there’s nothing Arabs can do to endear themselves to the government—and refuses to give up his own workers.
Sami becomes a nexus for all the tensions, as well as an emblem of the moneyed class’s unwillingness to get involved in a struggle that is eventually going to impact them anyway no matter what they do. Mentally as well as geographically, Sami has been distancing himself from his roots. It seems likely that his unseen mistress is Jewish, and at a couple of points Sami makes sure to let others know that he's doing better than anyone else in town, even becoming the first Arab to hold an executive job at his company.
The first conversation Sami has at the wedding reception is with a sad-eyed local named Abed (Ehab Salami) who can’t stop obsessing over a girlfriend who broke up with him a long time ago. Abed loves and admires Sami and remains hurt that he moved away and doesn’t call anymore. Abed recently bought a taxi with funds he borrowed from a local gangster named Nashraf (Nadib Spadi)—who gets involved in the roundup of workers later, a fascinating insight into his psychology—and eagerly asks Sami if he wants to go outside and look at it. Sami says no, in a passive-aggressive jerk sort of way, and Abed is crushed.
Abed is our entry point into a less-privileged part of the town that can be more easily moved to action, and can also be a conscience-stirring force for people like Sami who have more, and therefore feel as if they have more to lose. Abed’s economic status is shaky (the lockdown has stopped him from taking fares out of town, so now he can’t make his loan-shark payments) and his personal situation is miserable. It has long been understood that resistances and rebellions tend to be spearheaded by people like Abed, or people worse off than him. It's only after the lockdown's ripple effects hurt the main family's pocketbook and cause them to worry about running out of food that they begin to discuss resistance.
None of this is meant to make “Let It Be Morning” sound like a call to arms. It isn’t that—at least not primarily. It’s a humanistic work that’s warmer and more mature than a lot of more straightforward “statement” movies. The political and personal elements rarely seem cordoned off from each other. The characters—Sami especially, and his family and friends—are regularly surprised to learn that a personal choice or statement has political ramifications, and marks them as a certain “type” of person.
Kolirin has said in interviews that he considers this a human story. One could interpret both the film and the director’s framing of it as evidence that he’s a Sami-type: someone who has a conscience that can be stirred and who, after studying an issue and looking within himself, will land in a marginally more radical place than where he started; but who also doesn’t want to antagonize anybody, or risk labeling himself as dangerous (as evidenced by his decision to change Sami’s profession to IT work; in the novel, he was a politically outspoken journalist). When “Let It Be Morning” played at Cannes, the main cast decided not to attend because the film was submitted as an Israeli production. Kolirin told Middle East Eye that he rejected “categorization” and preferred to look for common or universalizing elements, even stating that the source novel “goes in line with lots of great Jewish writings like Kafka’s about the disposability of man.” The political-cultural tangles that subsumed this project must be familiar to Kashua, author of the source novel. He debuted with a book titled Dancing Arabs, about his experience as an Arab in an elite Israeli boarding school, and decided to write in Hebrew because it meant he had a better shot of explaining the complexity of Arab Israeli experiences to Jewish readers.
Luckily, the storytellers' caution translates as generosity on the screen and is communicated in thoughtfully framed and edited images that show how “normal” life continues even in unstable situations. The movie wants us to see the humanity in everyone, even in soldiers and local criminals—and in Nabil, whose eagerness to appease seems driven by feelings of inadequacy. We watch Sami and his son sit in Abed’s taxi as he blasts a Beyonce song outside his ex’s apartment, a moment that could happen in any country. Sami warms to a baby-faced soldier at the checkpoint named Elad (Costa Kaplan) after realizing that he went to school with the young man’s older brother and that this connection could help him convince the soldier to let him go beyond the checkpoint and into cell phone range to call his office and explain his absence. When we see that the young soldier brought an acoustic guitar to the checkpoint, it’s a humanizing touch that lets us relate to the character as something other than a tool of his government.
But Kolirin never seems to be indulging in special pleading, much less turning into the filmmaking equivalent of a Nabil. We understand the suppressed resentment of Sami’s seemingly apolitical younger brother, which expresses itself as a shocking performance of homicidal rage against the soldiers, who are representing an antagonizing force whether they play the guitar and have personal connections to civilians or not.
The movie is more successful as a character study than a polemic, and that seems to be where its heart lies anyway. It probably leans too hard on those doves that seem more comfortable in cages than in flight, and there might be one too many discussions of confinement as both political condition and mental state (the images put across these ideas better on their own).
But these are quibbles. The characters are impeccably acted and written, particularly in Sami’s scenes with Abed and Mira, and in Sami and Abed’s interactions with the gangster Nashraf. And Kolirin has a keen sense of how long to hold on a shot or scene. He gives us exactly the amount of information needed to get a point across, then cuts to the next bit. Only when you watch the film a second time do you realize how much he packed into a tight narrative space. This is one of those movies that expands in the memory, and that tries to err on the side of subtlety, no small feat given the subject matter.
Available in New York and LA and expanding on February 10th.
Alex Bakri as Sami
Juna Suleiman as Mira
Salim Dau as Tarek
Ehab Salami as Abed
Khalifa Natour as Mohammed
Izabel Ramadan as Zahara
Samer Bisharat as Aziz