Eran Kolirin’s debut feature The Band’s Visit is unlike other films from Israel in that it doesn’t solely deal with the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that has dragged on for dozens of years. Instead, it deals with Israeli and Arab relations in the form of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, an Egyptian music group, led by the stodgy conductor Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), who are accidentally stranded in a small, remote Israeli village where they spend the night making acquaintances with the locals despite language and cultural barriers.
“The first idea came with the commander singing,” Kolirin told ComingSoon.net when we sat down with him during a stop in New York. “I think for me, as someone who as born in ’73, when you say Egypt to me, my first association is music and films, rather than wars, because growing up, I saw Egyptian films and heard Egyptian music. One of the first images that I have is of President Sadat, who came in ’78 to Israel, walking down the plane in his very strict formal suit. It’s a very strong memory for me.”
“The cultural exchange is almost non-existent in any formal sense,” he admitted when asked whether the peace treaties of ’78 helped bring the two cultures together. “There is the Egyptian movies, but they were broadcast in Israel, but never formally. Israeli TV would just show them. Maybe this film is a little aching, because this was a think that could have been, but was never really established, this cultural exchange. There was one visit in ’81 of the Royal Dancing Company of Egypt, and they had a packed house at the big venue in Tel Aviv, but right after ’81 started the 1st Lebanon War, and since then nothing.”
Surprisingly, Kolirin grew up in the city, but his parents took him to Arat, which was similar to how the small town in the film is portrayed. “It has good air, and I have a very clear and strong childhood memories of these buildings, of this Communist architecture, in the middle of the desert.”
“It’s all fiction and nothing’s really happened,” Kolirin replied when asked whether the movie was based on any actual incident that happened in Israel, but he was hesitant at setting the movie in any one specific year. “I was getting a lot of remarks from readers of the script saying, ‘How come this story is not possible in present day Israel?’ To be completely right, it was never possible realistically but sometimes you think it was more optimistic, so I’ve changed it and played with it and put it in ’82, the days of the peace process, but then I said to myself, ‘It’s not relevant.’ I don’t want to connect it to a certain period, so for me, it’s just a fable, it’s a legend, and it can happen anytime.”
Maybe it’s that aspect of the movie, which has made it such a favorite at festivals from Cannes to Toronto, as well as finding a large audience when it played in Israel. Although there’s a lot of delightfully playful and humorous moments, Kolirin refuses to paint a completely rosy picture with the film’s message. “It’s idealistic but on the other hand, you have to be aware of the context, and when you’re aware of that and you feel how this movie is forcing this idea, it’s very clear once this movie is over and this man is going, then you’re back to normal. This tension between what life is and what life could have been makes it very sad for me, and this is the root of the melancholy for this movie. In this sense, it’s not idealistic at all, but there is a self-awareness of the whole thing being a fairy tale.”
Kolirin’s film ended up being nixed as Israel’s choice for Oscar consideration when it was pointed out how much of it is in English, being the only common language in which the film’s Egyptians and Israelis can communicate. “Obviously, Hebrew and Arabic are very close languages on the one hand, but on the other hand, some Israelis know some Arabic, but the Israeli establishment was very much against talking the native language, so most of the next generation doesn’t really know good Arabic,” Kolirin explained. “They can converse to a certain level but they cannot speak unless they learn it. At the end of the day, we converse in English, which is a part of the tragedy. Two bordering countries that do have certain common elements to them and that do have languages coming from the same root, but at the end of the day, they are so far apart, they have to use the third language, which has nothing to do with the region.”
Kolirin also theorized why his film might seem so different from other recent films from Israel in the way it deals with the relationship between Arabs and Israelis. “Maybe it’s different in the way that it addresses other questions, not the direct conflict, but other political questions of culture and assimilating in the region, and East and West conflict over the culture in Israel. In this sense, it’s maybe different.”
Even though this isn’t your typical Israeli film and is admittedly a fairy tale, don’t expect any Hollywood endings, especially with the relationship between Tewfiq and the beautiful Dina, a café owner he connects with played by Late Marriage‘s Ronit Elkabetz. “If I would make this relationship work, then I would be lying, then I would be believing in my own fairy tale. The movie had to be truthful. It’s like a bubble of another reality that blows away.”
The Band’s Visit opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, February 8.