Band’s Visit, The: Impressive Feature Debut by Israeli Director Eran Kolirin, Starring Ronit Elkabetz

Band’s Visit (Bikur Hatizmoret)

Israel

Cannes Film Fest 2007 (Certain Regard)–Israeli cinema must be experiencing a new artistic height for there were no less than three Israeli films in Cannes from a country that produces 10-12 pictures a year.

The most original and entertaining of the three was Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit,” an impressive feature directorial debut that was recognized with honors from Fipresci and the festival. The other two, Jellyfish (“Meduzot”) and “Psalms” (Tehilim) are also worth seeing.

As jury member, I attended the first screening of “Band’s Visit” in Cannes, which was greeted with huge applause. Sony Pictures Classic will release the film in the U.S. later in the fall.

A sly, wry comedy, with overt politics only in the background, Kolirin’s feature is about an Egyptian police band that gets stranded in Israel, exploring culture clash and miscommunication, while using the familiar premise of “fish out of water.”

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, a small Egyptian band, arrives in Israel as part of a larger mission, a cultural goodwill exchange–they are to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center. Dressed in full regalia and observing all military police protocol, the members of the orchestra are at a pivotal time in their careers. Its not just the political nature of an Arab military police band playing traditional Arab music in Israel that makes this event so important; budget cuts and many reorganizations have threatened the continued existence of the Orchestra.

Faced with the heavy burden of this assignment, the stoic conductor Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai, a prominent Israeli actor) is determined not to foul their excursion. Despite all Tewfiqs efforts, its not long before problems arise. The band lands at the airport with neither formal nor informal reception and, for reasons that can’t be described here, with no connection to their country’s diplomats.

Stranded and unable able to contact their Israeli hosts or the Egyptian consulate for help, Tewfiq decides that the Orchestra will persevere with its assignment and orders, and designates Khaled, a suave young ladies man (Saleh Bakri), to ask for directions. Khaled and the station agent struggle in English, Arabic and Hebrew to communicate, but despite their efforts, the Orchestra is sent to the outskirts of a small forgotten Israeli town in the desert.

Question is, how hostile will the new, strange landscape be At first, no matter what the members do, it turns out to be the wrong move. In the end, the band finds itself in a small, generic desert town, in which they are no hotels or motels. There’s also no transport out of town until the next day.

The first Israeli to welcome the group is Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a nice, open-minded kiosk owner, who offers lodging for two singers in her tiny flat and persuades her neighbors to do the same for the rest.

Once they have a place to stay, all kinds of interactions and friendships begin to evolve. Both cultural and personality differences come to the fore in determining the kind of experience individual members have. Hence, the band’s rigid, pretentious commander is juxtaposed with a loose, free-spirited inexperienced member.

Film’s central chapters detail the interaction between Dina, who decides not to discuss the political issues that divide the two cultures, and the two Egyptian men, Twefiq and Khaled. At first, Dinas wry, playful self-confidence, and undisguised sexuality make Tewfiq uncomfortable.

Nonetheless, she is persistent in her attraction to the older, serious Tewfiq, and after some prodding from Khaled, the shield of the melancholy bandleader begins to break down. Just watching this odd couple–the proud
Arab man in a powder blue military uniform and the free-spirited Israeli woman–is a pleasure, based on more cultural and personal than ideological differences.

Indeed, the evening leads to some uncomfortable moments and family tensions for the Israelis and their Egyptian guests but, some much needed romantic advice, an unlikely version of Summertime sung around the dinner table, and ultimately, compassion and understanding, help to bridge the cultural gaps.

In the end, Dina’s humanistic compassion breaks through Tewfiq’ gentlemanly demeanor. When the band leaves in the morning for their intended destination, it is clear that their unplanned detour was worth the trip.

Little happens by way of conventional plot, but it’s a movie about characterization, detail, nuance. Kolirin pokes fun at both the Egyptian and Israeli figures. Musically speaking, the band from Alexandria leaves a lot to be desired, and there’s a gap between its artistic credentials and impeccable physical appearances (just look at their formal wardrobe).

“Band’s Visit” could have easily escalated into a message film, but due to understated narrative and subtle, low-key dialogue, the focus is on how, despite political animosity and ideological differences, once thrown together, human beings of different races and nations can communicate and understand each other, even when they don’t share the same language.

“Band’s Visit” displays some surreal touches, and occasionally you have to remind yourself that this is a tale about co-existence of Israelis and Egyptians. “Realistic” critics in Cannes claimed that the film’s basic situation would never actually happen-Politics in the Middle East at the moment, including relationships between Israel and Egypt-are not very positive or promising. But I think that this kind of plausible approach misses Kolirin’s goal and point.

As writer and director, Kolirin (who according to the press notes comes from TV) knows that it’s all about human relationships and the right mood. Indeed, his unassuming tone and unpretentious approach lend plenty of charm to the film as a whole.

Considering this is a first feature, and done on an ultra-modest budget by any standard, “Band’s Visit” is nice to look at and listen to, courtesy of cinematographer Shai Goldman’s authentic imagery and Habib Shehadeh Hanna’s exuberant score.