Dawn is a psychological drama behind closed doors, in which four comrades in arms pressure the young Elisha to overcome his moral qualms and fully commit to the armed struggle.
The story is set in Palestine in 1947, during the British mandate period. The Zionists are fighting for the establishment of a Jewish state. A member of the armed Jewish underground has been sentenced to death by the British authorities. In return, the resistance has kidnapped a British officer, trying to redeem their friend. The insurgents spend the night together, waiting for the outcome of the negotiation. If the British hang their friend at dawn, one of them will shoot the British officer held as a hostage.
Based on the novel by Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, Dawn sheds a new light on a key moment in history that allows us to re-examine the current political disputes.
Since the beginning of the British occupation of Palestine, towards the end of the First World War, the British authorities were struggling to maintain peace between the local Arab population and the Jewish newcomers from Europe. When the British denied entry to the survivors of the concentration camps coming by boat to Palestine, they became the Enemy Number One of the Zionist project. Clandestine groups like the Irgun and Lehi subsequently increase their attacks against the British on Palestinian soil. (see also Timeline)
The theme of the resistance’s struggle has not lost its relevance since the novel’s publication in 1960. However, the reading of the book today evokes the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which it is now the Palestinians who are fighting for the liberation of Arab Palestine. The situation’s reverse is quite striking and shows that liberation can lead to other forms of oppression, once again leading to fight. Of course, this kind of theoretical reflection is quite distant from the people involved in the everyday struggle. It is therefore necessary to keep a certain distance in order to be able to judge the problem on the whole.
The central theme of Dawn is the question of belonging. Elisha, the protagonist, lost his family in the concentration camps and in the aftermath of WWII he has become homeless. He joins the armed struggle for the foundation of a Jewish state, thereby hoping to contribute to the creation of a new homeland. At the same time he sees in his comrades a family unit offering him comfort and trust. However, his new sense of purpose is shaken when he receives the order to shoot a British hostage. Will Elisha, who has survived the terrors of the Nazis, become an executioner himself? Will he justify himself with the confidence that the underground movement has granted, or will he act according to his conscience?
Elisha’s dilemma, universal in its content, brings out the classic question at the heart of any activist and fighter: does the end justify the means? Elisha’s comrades in arms try to persuade him to go ahead and to ignore his pangs of conscience. This raises another important issue: the distinction between persuasion and manipulation. The frontier between one and the other is slippery and often imperceptible. The group’s elders make the most out of it by building a useful rhetoric and mythology in order to achieve their goal.
Behind closed doors
The narrative of Dawn opens on an autumn afternoon and ends the following morning at dawn. The main part of the film takes place at night in an old Arab house used by the underground movement. During the day, the place is used to give Hebrew lessons to new immigrants, a perfect activity to conceal the fighters’ gatherings. That night, five members of the group are awaiting the negotiations’ outcome, which will seal the fate of the prisoners. In case the negotiations fail, their British hostage is to be executed at dawn. During the hours preceding the deadline, the relationships between the protagonists evolve and confrontations erupt. Gradually, they reveal their intentions, their dreams, their fears and their injuries. They pursue the same goal, but each one of them has his own history and his own motivations.
Elisha (Joel Basman) is on his first mission. He is part of a small group of four fighters. Right from the start, he feels that they do not tell him everything. He is not very sure of himself and tries to understand the issues without revealing his insecurity. He is in the classic position of the neophyte and has to prove during this initiation night his ability to be part of this group. Facing their English hostage brings back memories of his Nazi executioners and weakens his resolutions even further. He then tries to justify himself in front of his parents he thinks he has seen in the dark corridors leading to the cellar. In this vulnerability he’s looking for comfort and becomes so easily influenced.
Gad (Liron Levo), the proud and charismatic leader of the group, recruited Elisha in Paris, where he settled after the war. The sabra from Jerusalem is twelve years older than Elisha and has become like his older brother. Gad is well aware that Elisha also came to Palestine to find a new family, and thus takes his role as an educator very seriously. When Elisha refuses to obey the orders, his human and strategic abilities are put to the test. He continues to control perfectly the situation, until he learns of his friend David’s execution.
Joav (Moris Cohen), a vicious big mouth, is constantly testing Elisha’s strength and ability. To him, that night seems too long; he can’t wait for it to come to an end and does not approve Gad’s way of doing things. In fact, no one here has lessons to teach to this former Casablanca street criminal. He was recruited for his knowledge of weapons and his cold blooded way of using them. But behind his appearance of a tough guy and a brute, he is a man in lack of recognition, respect and love.
Gideon (Rami Heuberger), a practicing Jew, works with Joab. They form an unlikely couple, born out of the need for an armed struggle. His strong point is his intelligence and calm, which he manages to keep at all times. Gideon knows that the Jewish state is not the will of God, but that of man. This disobedience hurts him sometimes, but he knows of too many broken destinies to be aware that there is no alternative to their struggle. Born in Germany, he says he wants to “return” to Hebron and settle in the city where it all began.
Ilana (Sarah Adler), who was born in France, is the voice of their clandestine radio and Gad’s girlfriend. She met Elisha in Paris when he was recruited. Ilana is very touched by what he went through, and tries to be friendly to him. Her kiss in Paris was supposed to show him that the future can be beautiful and that the struggle for a Jewish state is right. Defying the orders, she goes to the school despite of the curfew in order to reassure Elisha and protect him from the others. But in the end, she has the same goal as the rest of the group: help Elisha to commit fully to their cause. Conscious of her power, she replies to Joab, who accuses her of never having used a weapon: ‘I kill with my voice’.
Dawson (Jason Isaacs), the British hostage, is trying to influence Elisha in the other direction. He is not convinced that the British presence in Palestine is relevant, and he hopes to be with his wife and son as soon as possible and go back to his civil job as a teacher. Right from the start, he does not believe the exchange of prisoners will work. He focuses all his efforts on Elisha, who is as old as his son. By using his teacher’s faculties and developing a subtle argumentation, he manages to actually touch Elisha.