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I don’t blame Eran Kolirin for controversies around his movies – opinion

I’ve never met Eran Kolirin, the Israeli screenwriter and director. But I like him. His movie The Band’s Visit attempted to show that Israelis and Arabs don’t need to be enemies and can in fact learn from one another. Granted, it wound up a little condescending toward the Arabs, in terms of the depth of the lessons learned. But his heart was in the right place, and the movie of course was a huge success, even begetting a Broadway musical.

I admire Kolirin for not following that movie up with The Band’s Return Visit or anything similar at all. His next film, The Exchange, was a guaranteed non-crowdpleaser. Its protagonist tries to take an enlightening vacation from worldly interactions by becoming a kind of phantom presence in his everyday surroundings. Or something like that. It was an amusing movie, but more a philosophy lesson in the absurdity of personal existence than a match to audience expectations.

Next, Kolirin made Beyond the Mountains and Hills, about a family suffering all kinds of tensions. The father is a recently retired army officer, the daughter is a peacenik with an Arab boyfriend, and there are grounds for suspecting she’s become a clueless pawn in a terrorist plot.

With that track record, Kolirin doesn’t seem to me like an ally of anti-Zionism, but the actors from Let It Be Morning – his latest film – made a fuss at the Ophir awards ceremony, where the film won ten prizes and became Israel’s candidate for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars. And the content of the film itself – which was recently screened at Israeli Cinema Day – shows Israel in a false and unflattering light.

Let It Be Morning comes from a pair of production companies with offices in Israel, and the filming was supported by a number of Israeli foundations. But the action takes place in an Arab village, the dialogue is almost entirely in Arabic, and even before the Ophir Awards, the actors boycotted the Cannes Film Festival in protest over the film’s designation as Israeli rather than Palestinian.

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Photo from Let It Be Morning (credit: SHAI GOLDMAN)

Then for the Ophir Awards ceremony, the film’s prize-winning supporting actor Ehab Elias Salami said that he had a harmless two-act dream: first, a just peace for the Palestinian people, and then a life of tranquility and creativity for the state’s citizens. 

Alex Bakri, best actor, sent a message saying that the story, about an imaginary blockade of the village on Israel’s part, points up “the absurdity and cruelty of being unable to control the smallest details of our lives here,” that the blockade next door to Israel is “much crueler, depriving people of a view of their future and of all hope,” and that although some might object to his political statement, artists must protest injustice at every opportunity. He hoped the movie would help convince audiences that “our national allegiance and the Palestinian right to self-definition” are not a threat but rather an opportunity for openness to a different but equal culture that is part of the local mosaic, and that they would cry out for an end to what is being done in their name.

A message from best actress Juna Suleiman said: “Normally I should be happy and thankful for the prize, but unfortunately that’s impossible while there are efforts to erase the Palestinian identity and my collective pain, which are present in every role I portray. To make a distinction between my role and my identity is a cynical, violent act based on ongoing colonialist traditions of erasing historical identity and of ethnic cleansing, leaving me room for no gladness but only for anger and frustration.”

Of course, they’re all entitled to their opinions, and they did thank the big filmmaking team. Smoothing the waters as he accepted his own awards – best screenplay and best director – Kolirin remarked that after the very important things that had been expressed, he wished to add that a movie is an encounter between people. He thanked everyone who contributed; and he emphasized his mutual good relations with them. He declared that he shares the award with the other nominated directors and with Sayed Kashua, who wrote the book on which the film is based.

Accepting the Best Picture award, producer Keren Michael said that the movie had been made with love and human interconnection, and that “a country’s strength is measured by its ability to allow a variety of society’s voices to be heard.”

But when the Oscar judges and other foreign audiences and opinion-makers see the movie, they won’t experience a variety of society’s voices. They’ll see an Israeli Arab village where the residents find – without explanation, but apparently because unauthorized workers from the West Bank are present – that suddenly Israel permits no one to enter or leave, cuts off electricity, and leaves them short of food and water.

Such a thing has never happened in reality. Of course, we don’t go to the movies to see literal reality. The Band’s Visit also revolved around an unrealistic premise. It’s about an Egyptian police band that makes a good-will visit to Israel, but Egypt’s cultural relations with Israel are actually nil. Let It Be Morning is a fable, a satire, a warning. And a magnificent gift to the defamers of Israel.

Audiences around the world will assume that Israel routinely and arbitrarily besieges its own Arab villages for days on end. Rather than advancing understanding of Israel, Let It Be Morning will advance misunderstanding and hostility. Few viewers will say “How wonderful Israel is, to lionize a film that disparages itself.” More will assume that Israel would never promote such a tale, or even permit it, unless it reflected reality. And it’s not as if the world is blessed with a lot of pro-Israeli movies on the other hand. Or with a lot of enthusiastically pro-Israeli interviewees among the red-carpet actors.

I don’t blame Eran Kolirin. Maybe, like the man in his movie The Exchange who wanted to be a phantom, he doesn’t quite have both feet on the ground. Maybe, like the girl in his movie Beyond the Mountains and Hills, he fails to think hard about what he’s getting himself into.

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But when Israeli government foundations give their support to films in the making, someone should be thinking ahead. Someone should take into account that whereas internal self-criticism is vital to a democracy, deceptive self-disparagement on the international scene does no good.

The writer is a fan of Israeli cinema.

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