‘My Lost Country’ at SAFAR: Three questions with multi-hyphenated filmmaker Ishtar Yasin Gutiérrez

The festival, which is slated to return after a one-year hiatus this Fall, announced the new appointment on a Facebook post.
‘My Lost Country’ at SAFAR: Three questions with multi-hyphenated filmmaker Ishtar Yasin Gutiérrez

It is not difficult to find relevance in the story of Let It Be Morning these days — as the news from Israel/Palestine seem to tragically parallel the film’s themes of living in a state of siege. This is a work of art that could simply be watched as a roadmap to understanding the ongoing conflict, in a way. But Eran Kolirin’s latest film is so much more profound than that. And when you factor in that it is based on Palestinian author Sayed Kashua’s intense book by the same name, it becomes a perfectly personal, spellbinding masterpiece that needs to be watched to comprehend how our own inner walls at times can be torn down by unexpected events.

Let It Be Morning premiered in Cannes in 2021 and then went on to sweep the Ophirs, the Israeli Oscars. While in Cannes, the almost entirely Palestinian cast of this Israeli film made a stance against the then policies of the government and missed out on climbing the famous red carpeted stairs on the Croisette. But they more than made up for that by winning in nearly every category at the Ophir Awards the same year.

The brilliance of Let It Be Morning is that the story it tells is much more complex than the tale it presents on the surface and by factoring into the mix of a Palestinian writer, and a 90 percent Palestinian cast, also an Israeli filmmaker, the film becomes a weapon of mass collaboration, the ultimate bridge to a dialogue for a peaceful future in the disputed land.

When Sami (played stunningly by Alex Bakri, also from the famous Bakri acting dynasty but a cousin to Saleh and Adam) is invited to attend his brother’s wedding, he brings along his wife and child but also secrets and those misconceptions he’s been harboring about his native village and the world around him. At one point and without any explanations, the IDF seal off the village, making it impossible for Sami to escape and return to his more comfortable Jerusalem life. As his hidden life begins to crumble, while at the same time the Israeli separation walls are kept up all around him, Sami seems to reconnect with his Palestinian soul and his wife (played exceptionally by the film’s casting director Juna Suleiman) as well.

Eran Kolirin is a filmmaker who manages to find the unexpected within stories we think we already know. It is this quality that made his debut film The Band’s Visit (2007) so successful and created a movement around it that resulted in an award winning Broadway musical version of the touching, intimate story of an Egyptian band stuck in a remote village in Israel. Let It Be Morning is just as powerful, and acted perfectly by a stunning ensemble cast.

I caught up with the thoughtful Eran Kolirin over Zoom and I asked him about the challenges of adapting a literary work to cinema, living under siege and how he managed such brilliant casting for his latest film.

You have this wonderful ability to tell stories that of course are from your homeland, but they’re also stories that are told with characters who are not necessarily Israeli. I wanted to ask you where this comes from, because both The Band’s Visit and Let It Be Morning feature Arab stories at their core. And these Arab characters who are placed along in situations with their Israeli counterparts.

Eran Kolirin: I think that in reality there’s always the twilight spaces where identities are mixed, those areas in reality exist. So, if you’re just confining yourself to your own identity, which is also something that is very elusive at the end of the day… Our identities are complex, morbid and they are kind of in movement all the time. And I’m really interested in the threshold areas, also geographically, and in the sense of the spirit. What happens to the spirit in the area of the encounter — of where you meet your others, or your others meet you.

I don’t know why I’m attracted to these spaces, but even when I made films which didn’t necessarily have Arab characters, I also dealt with those areas of threshold — of being outside of your society or life where suddenly you’re taken away from your normal life and you have different perspectives on your life.

I like those grey areas.

I do too. I think that’s where cinema does its best work.

Kolirin: I also think that, because in cinema the tendency of the camera is to see, even the architecture or the scenery of places which are out of time or out of context. With cinema, you can take away the context and put it in another context. It’s an ability that exists in cinema very strongly.

In your press kit, you talk about this being a story of what it’s like to be “in a state of Siege” and the characters in Sayed Kashua’s book are under siege, and in the film, they’re under siege. But you also personally live under siege, because I think that being an Israeli in Israel is also an existence under siege.

Kolirin: In a way that’s the subconscious of this country. Because people, unfortunately, don’t understand that once you build the wall to defend yourself, or when you think you are defending yourself, you actually close yourself off too. So you’re actually putting yourself in a siege and not necessarily the other party. This mental state of siege in different colors is laid upon this whole land. We are each under a certain siege — whether it’s a mental siege, or an inability to look further. And what is brilliant about Sayed’s book is that it speaks about both sides, because it speaks about a certain mental and spiritual aspect that comes from the political situation.

What brought you and Sayed together for this project?

Kolirin: This started actually by chance. I just got a call from the film’s producer, Keren Michael and she said that Sayed wanted to meet me. So I met them both in a cafe and at that time I hadn’t read the book yet. But Sayed said he liked my films and would I be interested in adapting this book to the cinema? I took the book, and I read it a couple of times, and then I could, in some way, understand why he approached me — even though I may not be the obvious choice, being an Israeli, for example. But I understood, there’s this perspective about human life and a perspective about trying to survive and being in fear which I think I have also in my films… And the humor also, this absurd-ish point of view. So I could understand why he wanted me to do it and it was a challenge.

I like challenges, I don’t like to go where I’m safe — I mean, every film should be like a journey on the edge of something. So this is how this journey started.

I read Let It Be Morning many years ago, and you’ve made a few changes, like the profession of the main character Sami, who is a journalist in Sayed’s book.

Kolirin: Yes, I’ve changed a lot of things. I think Sayed was very generous in giving me a free hand. You know, I don’t see myself as a professional director in the sense that I take a work, I translate it to the screen and that’s it. I need to get it in my soul somehow.

So there were some changes that I felt more comfortable with. Sayed himself is a journalist, so he felt close to this profession, but for me, I’ve never worked in journalism. That profession doesn’t necessarily strike a chord inside me and I thought the essence was about a man who was trying to avoid struggle, and is suddenly faced with struggle. He has to decide to act and is forced to face question that he wanted to avoid. I mean, when you’re a journalist, you somehow deal with questions all the time. And for me, I thought that if I chose a very kind of bourgeois profession and if I think the character is more detached from the questions, I’ll have the addition of a certain drama that I can relate to. Those changes were actually me trying to get closer to the spirit of the story — finding the right images to connect to, that would tell the same story as in the book, but would allow me to feel more connected to the story, thus making me feel more free.

And what works is that in the book, you know, we read him in first person and so we think that it is Sayed talking about his own life. Whereas in the film, you don’t have that luxury and so this work that he does makes him a better character, to watch…

Kolirin: Sayed writes very brilliantly, but I cannot write in first person. Theoretically, you can do it in film, you can have a voiceover, but it would be a little bit artificial if I tried to go inside the first person of Sayed. So I told Sayed and I told myself in the beginning, that I will allow myself to change anything I would feel, as long as I remained faithful for the spirit of Sayed’s book, and the spirit is what is most important for me. The spirit of the special point of view of Sayed, the spirit of the absurdism, of the humor. And I needed to translate the spirit into my words. You know, sometimes you can be loyal to all the details, but miss the spirit of things.

And some times you are not loyal to the details, but still remain faithful to the spirit, which is more important.

How did you cast this film, because you have an exceptional cast of Palestinian Arab Israeli actors.

Kolirin: It started with Juna Suleiman, the film’s the casting director. It was kind of funny story about the casting because I met with her, we became very close, she helped me with the script at a time when I was still not very happy with it. And when we talked about casting the first person she mentioned, as someone I should have in the film was Alex Bakri. And I didn’t know Alex Bakri, I had worked with Saleh Bakri [on The Band’s Visit], his cousin, but I never knew about Alex. I asked her if he was an actor. She said, “no, he’s my ex boyfriend, he is perfect.” She said you should meet him, he’s just this guy.

So I met Alex and you know, it was obvious she was right. He had a lot of the characteristics which I was searching for — this type always looking from the sidelines at things, not really engaging. He has this prince look that is a bit outside of society… He is smart, you can see it in his eyes, he understand everything, but he doesn’t necessarily want to interact. And so he was the choice for Sami. And then I was trying to find Mira, and I met a lot of actresses, and something was not working correctly. On the last day of audition, Juna suddenly said “You know I’m going to do it better than everyone else.” And I said, OK, please sit in front of the camera and let’s see. And they sat together, Juna and Alex and being an old couple after a breakup, in real life, there was something very obvious that this couple was real. And you know, Juna is all fire and a lot of energy and a lot of anger. And Alex is more like water, he is calm, he’s observing — and it’s very obvious why this couple would be attracted to each other and on the other hand, why it can’t really work between them. So a lot of the things that were in the script were suddenly there on the screen and it was Juna and Alex, and I didn’t know either of them before the film.

Then Juna really got me knowing a lot of great Palestinian actors, names I wasn’t aware of because they weren’t on television or big stuff here. People like Ehab Salami who plays Abed, the taxi driver, he is just a wonderful actor and a wonderful person, he is a rare, rare human being with really this kind of simple naivety, which I love and he has this pureness about him. Slowly, I gathered more actors, like Samer Bisharat who plays the young brother, is also a beautiful actor. Isabel Ramadan, who plays the mother, she’s not an actress, but she was Juna’s teacher at school. She’s a brilliant person, a PhD in education. She had done some guest parts and she was also a great surprise for me and of course Salim Dau, I always wanted to work with him, because Salim is rather known in Israel, but somehow I didn’t get the chance to work with him before. And I thought this would be the time to finally work with Salim.

Bit by bit, this little circus came together and it was this beautiful circus of really nice people and I had a great time with the actors.

There was that whole moment in Cannes when your cast sort of deserted you and made a political stance.

Kolirin: I don’t see it as a desertion. First of all, they made the stance opening with the words “we stand proudly behind the film.” For me, I have great solidarity with my actors, they gave their hearts and minds to the film. And I could understand that at that point, in reality, following this dreadful military operation that was going on, they had to use the film in order to say something. And I respect that. I don’t have an issue with the stance, I support that.

I would be happy and I think they would be happy too if reality would be a bit less awful and they could just have come to Cannes and celebrated, you know, but they felt they needed to make a certain statement at that time. And as far as I go, I see it as a sign of solidarity, because what they did, they wrote a statement saying we stand behind the film, but they have a problem with the politics and I endorse the statement, I published it on my my Facebook page and everything. It’s part of the truth of working together and that’s accepting that the other has the right to use the film as a tool, as a stage to speak about problems. That’s okay, that’s why we make films and my only sadness is that I think they deserved to be on that red carpet in Cannes. It’s a pity that you know, that’s the outcome of reality.

Your film then went on to sweep the Ophirs in 2021. So how does it feel to be recognized at an awards stage, but also at an award stage that represents a country that is so divided and yet understood this work as the very unifying, very important film it is?

Kolirin: Any country has a lot of colors in it, even if unfortunately the case in Israel right now is that the colors that are dominant are very black. Yet there are still people and forces that would like to live peacefully and lovingly and openly, with anyone here. There are still people like that. And I see this prize coming from the film industry in Israel. The film industry is the one that’s picking the film. It’s not picked by the government, it’s picked by the film industry. And I feel as a part of this film industry. I’m very happy that you know, they chose to hug this film. It was not an easy film. But it’s also taking a stance — and film should walk within reality. Every country, everywhere in the world is a mix of light and dark forces. I try to work with who I see as the forces of light, but there is no pure situation.

Do you think that cinema is the way to help us bridge cultures and create a dialogue with the other?

Kolirin: I wish it would, but I’m kind of realistic. If you’d asked me this 10 years ago, I would have said no way. But maybe as I’m getting older, I’m getting a bit softer. Every time when you know, someone comes up to me and he has some light in his eyes after they’ve seen the film, that shows me that something touched this basic human ability of getting connected, laughing together, being in pain together. And I think to myself, it must be on the good side of life, you know? And so some good has been done. And who knows, it might work.

Let It Be Morning opens at the Quad Cinema in NYC and Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on February 3rd before expanding to more cities on the 10th, and nationwide in the U.S. on the 17th. For more info, check out the Cohen Media Group website.

Images courtesy of Cohen Media Group, used with permission.

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