With ‘Let It Be Morning’ and ‘Cinema Sabaya,’ Israeli filmmakers are winning awards for portraying Palestinian stories


(JTA) — Years ago, the Israeli filmmaker Orit Fouks Rotem took a class led by director Eran Kolirin, best known as the maker of “The Band’s Visit.” This month, movies by both filmmakers are getting theatrical rollouts in the United States.

On a recent Zoom call, Palestinian author Sayed Kashua joked: “Was that his class — how to use a Palestinian story?”

Kashua was smiling on Zoom as he said it — he is, after all, known for his often fatalistic sense of humor, particularly when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the author had given his blessing for Kolirin to make an adaptation of his novel “Let It Be Morning,” and said he loved the final result. 

But like most jokes, this one had a kernel of truth: Israel’s two most recent Oscar submissions, hitting New York’s Quad Cinema within a week of each other, both — to varying degrees — tell Palestinian stories. 

“Let It Be Morning” is a dark comedy about an Arab Israeli village that has suddenly and with no explanation been cordoned off from the rest of the country by the Israeli military. This event forces its Palestinian residents, including a protagonist trying to return to his comfortable middle-class life in Jerusalem, to reckon with how their dignity as citizens has been denied to them by the mechanisms of the Israeli occupation. At the Quad, the film is accompanied by a retrospective of Kolirin’s work, including “The Band’s Visit,” the basis for the Tony Award-winning musical; the retrospective is sponsored by the Israeli consulate in New York.

The all-female cast of “Cinema Sabaya,” a mix of Jewish and Arab actresses, in a film directed by Orit Fouks Rotem. (Courtesy of Kino Lorber)

The following week will see the opening of Rotem’s film, “Cinema Sabaya.” It follows a group of eight women, some Jewish and some Arab and Palestinian, who bond with each other while taking a filmmaking class in a community center in the Israeli city of Hadera. Cast member Dana Ivgy, who plays the class’s instructor, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the filming experience “felt like how living in Israel should feel,” adding, “We have more women in the film than in the Israeli government.”

Stylistically, the two films couldn’t be more different. “Let It Be Morning” is a tightly plotted narrative with boldly realized characters; almost all of its dialogue is in Arabic. “Cinema Sabaya” is a loose, heavily improvisational piece that is almost entirely set in one room, and is mostly in Hebrew (although in one tense early scene, the characters debate whether to conduct their class in Hebrew or Arabic). One is a dry, Kafkaesque satire; the other is an intimate, naturalistic drama.

But together, the films provide a snapshot of the delicate dance Israeli filmmakers must perform in the current climate. On the one hand, these art-house directors are being feted on the international stage for their empathetic storytelling that incorporates or even centers entirely on Palestinian characters. But on the other, they’re being attacked by government officials for their perceived insufficient loyalty — and their films’ very status as “Israeli” is being questioned, too, sometimes by their own cast and crew.

“Everyone can call it what they want,” Rotem said of her film. “I’m an Israeli and it’s in Israel, but I have partners who call themselves Palestinians, and some of them call themselves Arabs, and each one defined herself. I think it’s really how it should be.”

“A film does not have an identity,” Kolirin insisted in an interview with JTA. “It is a citizen of the screen.”

Eran Kolirin ophir

Eran Kolirin accepted the award for Best Director for “Let It Be Morning” at the 2021 Ophir Awards in Tel Aviv on October 5, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

Kolirin isn’t a fan of the label “Israeli film” in this case, even though that is how “Let It Be Morning” was categorized at its 2021 Cannes Film Festival premiere; its own press notes also list Israel as the “country of production.” That Cannes screening took place shortly after Israel’s deadly conflict with Hamas that killed more than 250 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and around a dozen Israelis. The events turned Cannes into a political firestorm when the film’s Palestinian cast refused to attend the premiere.

“We cannot ignore the contradiction of the film’s entry into Cannes under the label of an ‘Israeli film’ when Israel continues to carry its decades-long colonial campaign of ethnic cleansing, expulsion, and apartheid against us — the Palestinian people,” the cast’s statement read in part. 

“Each time the film industry assumes that we and our work fall under the ethno-national label of ‘Israeli,’ it further perpetuates an unacceptable reality that imposes on us, Palestinian artists with Israeli citizenship,” the statement continues, calling on “international artistic and cultural institutions” to “amplify the voices of Palestinian artists and creatives.”

Kolirin himself supported the cast’s action. He knew they were grieving over the outbreak of violence in Gaza and didn’t want to put themselves in a situation where “some politician is going to wave a flag over their head or whatever.” 

What’s more, he said, the status of “Let It Be Morning” as an “Israeli” film, despite the fact that around half the crew was Palestinian, was not his decision: “The film was not submitted to Cannes as an Israeli film,” he said. “You know, you fill in the form: ‘Which were the countries that gave money?’” In this case, the answer was Israel and France.

Most of the cast later did not attend the Ophir Awards ceremony, Israel’s equivalent to the Oscars voted on by its filmmaking academy, where “Morning” won the top prize (which automatically made it Israel’s Oscar submission for that year). In solidarity at the awards, Kolirin read aloud a statement from his lead actress, Juna Suleiman, decrying Israel’s “active efforts to erase Palestinian identity” and what she called “ethnic cleansing.”

Orit Fouks Rotem

Orit Fouks Rotem (Courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Cinema Sabaya” hasn’t played host to as much offscreen controversy, but its vision of Israeli multiculturalism is still inherently political. Rotem’s mother is a local government adviser on women’s issues in Hadera, and the film was inspired by her experience participating in a photography class designed to unite Jewish and Arab women. Rotem herself later led filmmaking classes in a similar vein as research for “Sabaya.” 

In the film, Ivgy’s character, who is modeled on Rotem, instructs her class to film their home lives, while secretly hoping to make a movie from their efforts. When her desire to do so is revealed, the women in the class feel betrayed: They thought they were just making films for themselves, not for their stories to be told by someone else.

Similarly, Rotem said that working with Arab and Palestinian actresses made her “aware to the fact that I can’t really tell their story.” Her solution was to allow the performers — some of whom are well-known activists who had to think twice about appearing in an Israeli movie — to voice their own opinions, and to establish the necessary trust to allow them to be unscripted on camera.

She theorizes that “Cinema Sabaya” has been so well received in Israel because “it doesn’t say ‘occupation, occupation, occupation.’ It says ‘humanity,’ so people are less afraid.” (She also noted that, in real life, the women who attended her filmmaking classes bristled at her initial suggestion to make a documentary about them, telling her to fictionalize their stories instead — which she did.)

Lately the Israeli government has a tendency to view its filmmaking class as agitators unworthy of national support, particularly when they make films criticizing the occupation. Former Culture Minister Miri Regev often disparaged films she thought were bad for Israel, including celebrated international hits such as “Foxtrot” and “Synonyms.” Her current successor, Miki Zohar, has already threatened the makers of a new documentary about the West Bank city of Hebron, saying the movie smears the military and that the directors might have to return government funds. 

In recent years, Israel’s culture ministry has pushed two new controversial proposals: a grant program earmarked for those who make films in settlements, which are considered illegal under international law; and a form pledging not to make films “offensive” to Israel or the military that filmmakers would be required to sign in order to apply for certain grants, which many directors have likened to a loyalty oath. For years, some of the country’s largest grantmakers have required applicants to sign a form promising to represent their projects as Israeli on the national stage.

There has also been an effort among some members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new right-wing government to end funding to public broadcaster Kan, which the country’s film industry views as another attack on its free expression.

“Kan has all this dialogue,” Ivgy said. “It has Jewish and religious and Arab and Palestinian, for kids and for grownups. And nothing is taboo there. I feel that it’s very dangerous to close that option down.”

Many Israeli filmmakers are fighting back. Hundreds, including Kolirin and Rotem, have refused to sign the ministry’s pledge, and many have also protested the settlement grant program. Nadav Lapid, one of the country’s most celebrated and outspoken directors, harshly critiqued government restrictions placed on his own work in the 2021 drama “Ahed’s Knee,” which went on to win a special prize at Cannes.

Kolirin said he had recently been on a call with several Israeli filmmakers looking to further organize against artistic restrictions, and that it had given him hope. “I had this feeling of some optimism, which I didn’t have for a long time,” he said. But he didn’t mince words when discussing Israel’s new governing coalition, which he likened to “a circus of mad dogs unleashed.” 

Rotem said that the current government is “very, very bad and scary,” but that it has only strengthened her resolve to make political films.

“For me, it’s also political to show women in Israel in a deep way: I mean Arabs and Jews,” she said. “Because I don’t think there are enough films that are doing that.”

For Kashua, a veteran TV writer and opinion columnist, the question of identity in Israeli and Palestinian filmmaking is even more pronounced. After a long career of trying to write about the Palestinian experience in Hebrew as a way of reaching Israelis, he left Israel for the United States in 2014, becoming discouraged by an incident in which Jewish extremists burned a Palestinian teenager alive as revenge after Palestinian terrorists kidnapped Israeli soldiers. Now based in St. Louis, he has worked as a writer and story editor on Israeli series that center on both Palestinian and Jewish stories — including the global hit “Shtisel,” which focuses on haredi Orthodox Jews, and its upcoming spinoff, along with “Madrasa,” a young-adult series about a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic school.

Israeli filmmakers choosing to center Palestinian stories can be its own radical political act, Kashua believes. He noted that the dialogue in “Morning” is almost entirely in Arabic, a language that Israel demoted from national language status in 2018 — doubly ironic as he had deliberately chosen to write his original novel in Hebrew. 

“The idea that this film is ‘Israeli’ — it really contradicts the idea of Israel being a purely Jewish state,” Kashua said. He added that, while he had initially hoped a Palestinian director might have adapted his novel, he was ultimately happy with Kolirin’s approach.

“I truly love the movie, and it’s barely Orientalist,” he joked, echoing Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said’s famous book about how a Western lens on Eastern cultures can be reductive and harmful. “Which is a big achievement for an Israeli filmmaker.”