Controversial Palestinian drama sweeps Israeli Oscars, politics dominate event

‘Let It Be Morning’ by Eran Kolirin, known for directing ‘The Band’s Visit,’ wins in 7 categories, including best film and director

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

The 2021 Ophir Awards ceremony also known as the Israeli Oscars in Tel Avivo n October 05 2021 (Courtesy Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)
The 2021 Ophir Awards ceremony also known as the Israeli Oscars in Tel Avivo n October 05 2021 (Courtesy Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin was the big winner in Tuesday night’s annual Ophir Awards ceremony, for his latest film, “Let It Be Morning.”

Best known for his award-winning 2007 movie “The Band’s Visit,” which also made it to Broadway, Kolirin based his film on Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua’s 2006 novel of the same name.

“Let It Be Morning” swept the Ophirs, winning seven awards, including best director and screenplay for Kolirin, and best actor and actress, respectively, for Palestinian co-stars Alex Bakri and Juna Suleiman.

Fellow Palestinian actor Ehab Elias Salami won best supporting actor, while Suleiman also won best the prize for best casting.

“Let It Be Morning” tells the story of Sami, a Palestinian accountant and Israeli citizen, who is traveling home with his wife and son, having departed a family wedding in his childhood village.

He is stopped by soldiers and sent back to the village, which then comes under an unexplained lockdown, messing up their plans and forcing him to reassess his Palestinian identity.

“Let It Be Morning” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival during the summer and premiered in Israel at the recent Haifa Film Festival.

As the winner of the Ophir for feature film, it will automatically become Israel’s selection for a nomination for an Academy Award for best foreign film, although there hasn’t been an Israeli film nominated in that category since Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote” in 2011.

“Let It Be Morning” had a rocky festival launch in Cannes in July after most of the cast, including Bakri, Suleiman and Salami, refused to attend the world premiere, protesting Cannes’ designation of the film as Israeli, rather than Palestinian.

Suleiman and Bakri, who both live in Germany, did not attend Tuesday night’s ceremony either, and instead sent statements read at the event.

“In a normal situation, I would feel happiness and recognition for the prize, but to my dismay that’s not possible when there are efforts being made to wipe out the Palestinian identity and the collective pain that I carry with me is found in every role I play,” wrote Suleiman.

Bakri’s speech was also read on Tuesday night.

“The film describes a closure that has no reasons and no end in sight. That closure represents the absurd and inability to control tiny details of our lives,” wrote Bakri. “I know that there are those who will be angry about bringing up politics in this evening that celebrates art, but to my mind all art is political and behind it is an artist’s responsibility to take advantage of every stage possible to speak out about a lack of justice.”

Best supporting actor winner Salami was present at the ceremony, and spoke from the stage.

“I have a dream, and that dream does not harm humanity, and doesn’t damage health. It’s in two acts — first, a just peace for the Palestinian people; the second act is a calm life, a peaceful life, a creative life for the citizens of the [Israeli] state,” said Salami, who received enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Commentators on Israeli channel 12 commented that if former culture minister Miri Regev were still culture minister, there would have been an outcry over the winning film selection.

Regev frequently spoke out against funding Israeli films that represented the Palestinian situation, and walked out of the 2016 Ophir Awards ceremony when a Palestinian rapper included an excerpt of a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Her successor,  current culture minister Chili Tropper, enthusiastically endorsed freedom of speech in his own presentation Tuesday night, adding that he is a proud, Jewish, Zionist patriot.

Part of Tropper’s speech, however, was cut in the editing of the awards ceremony and was not broadcast, although Channel 12 acknowledged what it said was a mistake and said it will be showing the speech in full on Friday’s rebroadcast of the event.

The Channel 12 commentator wondered aloud if the Palestinian actors in “Let It Be Morning” would go to Hollywood and support the film if it’s nominated to the Oscars.

Bakri and Suleiman did attend the Israeli premiere in front of a mixed Arab and Jewish audience at the Haifa International Film Festival in late September, where the film won best film screenplay and a first best-supporting actor win for Salami.

The Haifa event often foreshadows the winners at the Ophir Awards.

Other Ophir Award winners included Gidi Dar’s animated feature “Legend Of Destruction” for best music, art design, editing and sound design.

Reymonde Amsellem won best supporting actress for her performance in Amir Manor’s Tel Aviv-set prostitution drama “The House On Fin Street.”

Avi Nesher’s “Image Of Victory,” which had 15 nominations, won best cinematography, costumes and makeup.

Vanessa Lapa’s “Speer Goes To Hollywood,” about Nazi Albert Speer’s attempt to sell the rights to his life story, won best documentary.

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