The Band's Visit
By Judy Stone
Eran Kolirin is an Israeli director who made a comedy
to try to understand why he feels the kind of pain
that persists after someone's arm is cut off. He
is still struggling to explain just why he made a
film about an Egyptian military band stranded in
an Israeli desert even after "The Band's Visit" took
both Best Director and Best Screenplay prize at last
year's Israeli Academy Awards and has won raves at
festivals all over the (non-Arab) world.
Underneath the poignant humor, the film subtly reflects
the director's attempt to comprehend Israel's pull
between the Middle East and the West.
Before that thought came into focus, Kolirin had
a vision of a staunchly disciplined Arab band commander. "I
don't know where this image comes from," the
34-year old director said while here to promote the
film at the Embarcadero theater. "I began investigating
where does it come from and what does it mean for
His ideas began to take shape as he thought back
to a travel book by an Egyptian playwright who got
lost on his first day in Israel and couldn't find
his way to Tel-Aviv.
And so, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra
arrives in Israel to play at the opening of an Arab
cultural center, but no one is there to meet them.
Directed to the wrong bus, the tired and hungry musicians
(all but one played by Palestinians) find themselves
in the middle of nowhere with only a ramshackle restaurant
in view. The lusty, unlucky-in-love owner Dina makes
them feel at home.She finds them bedding for the
night in some odd spots while the musicians make
tentative, gentle connections to their Jewish hosts
who seem as lost and lonely as their unexpected guests.
And the stoic forbidding commander Tewfiq and hungry-
for- excitement Dina find a moving, mostly unspoken
solice in companionship.
When Tewfiq (played by Sasson Gabai., an Iraqi Jew)
asks if there's a cultural center nearby, she gruffly
replies, "There's no Arab culture, no Israeli
culture, no culture at all."
"That is something I'm asking myself," Kolirin,
born in Israel, says in heavily accented English. "I
am raising questions I am contemplating in myself.
How much of Israel is Arabic? How much should it
be open to the culture of the region? How much of
it is westernized? Who am I? I am from Europe partly.
My mother is the daughter of Lithuanian parents.
My father, a filmmaker, goes back partly seven generations
in Jerusalem. Part of his family are from the Polish-Ukraine
border area. I grew up in the Middle East. When I
hear an Arabic song, it's like something from my
childhood. I feel a longing to some connection I
once had - like a pain in the arm that was cut off.
It is different from when I hear classical western
music. I feel a longing for some connection to the
place I'm living in. On the other hand I'm living
in a country that was built for Jews. "
H e lovingly recalls the early 1980s when he and
his family breathlessly used to watch Egyptian movies
on the only Israeli tv channel. Afterwards, the Israeli
Broadcasting Authority's orchestra, made up almost
entirely of Arab Jews from Iraq and Egypt , would
sometimes perform. But now the Egyptian movies have
almost completely disappeared from Israeli screens.
Mohammed Bakri, one of the most famous Palestinian
actors in Israel who is the father of the tall, handsome
young band musician, tried to get "The Band's
Visit" screened in Ramallah, but it was a time
of too much tension between Fatah and Hamas for an
Israeli film to be shown. . The state of Israel,
Kolirin says, has not been in existence long enough
to have a traditional culture. "There's Jewish
tradition from different parts of the diaspora -
from Morocco, from eastern Europe. On the one hand
Israel seeks a connection to the region, but on the
other hand it is very bent on separation from the
region so it's a kind of schizophrenic thing. "