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In The Band's Visit (2007), Eran Kolirin's gently low-key character piece, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra - an eight-piece band from Egypt - flies in to Israel to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tiqva. Through miscommunication, they take a bus to the similar-sounding Bet Hatikva, a dusty little town in the middle of the Negev Desert. Or, in the words of one inhabitant, "Nowhere."
"No Arab Cultural Center?" queries Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai), the ranking officer and fastidiously proper conductor of the band. "No culture," explains Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), the wry owner of the local diner. "Not Israeli culture, not Arab culture. No culture at all." And to make matters worse, there is no bus back until the next day. So these Egyptian officers in powder blue uniforms become the anxious guests of the wary Israel townsfolk. There is a veneer of politeness and generosity over the tensions of discomfort and, if not exactly suspicion, certainly an uneasiness. Their nations were once enemies and now a troop of uniformed Egyptian policemen wander into town, albeit with musical instruments rather than weapons and the helpless expression of the hopelessly lost.
Gabai (an Israeli actor of Iraqi descent) is gently reserved and thoroughly deadpan as the sad-faced Tawfiq, maintaining a faade of dignity as he puts on a professional manner (he is, after all, representing his culture in Israel); it becomes his personal bailiwick to deal with this minor disaster that no one at the Arab Cultural Center has even noticed. In the director's own words, Tawfiq has "A restrained, meticulous exterior, but underneath there's a beating heart and a fire that wants to burst out." Elkabetz is funny, spirited and sexy as the divorced Dina, who becomes one-woman hospitality committee. She feeds the troop (they're short on local currency), puts two of the men up in her apartment and arranges to billet the rest in homes around town for the night.....because there is no hotel in the windswept backwater. She gives special attention to Tawfiq, sensing something tender and authentic under his carefully groomed exterior, and they come as close to flirting as his nature will allow.
Colliding gently with Tawfiq is Haled (Saleh Bakri), the youngest member of the band and the least inhibited. In this culture of discipline, that makes him something of a rebel by contrast, but even his rebellion is so low key that it barely rises to the level of minor impertinence. When he finds that the closest thing this town has to youth nightlife is a roller rink, he ends up playing mentor to a nebbish whose awkward date is in danger of dying of inertia.
First-time writer and director Eran Kolirin, whose film was inspired by a real-life incident of a lost Egyptian police orchestra in Israel, spent years developing the script. Wary of building a film around some big theme of bridging the divide between the cultures, he kept the stories small and intimate and made a point of avoiding the expected clichs of cultural collision. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, The Band's Visit has, by the end, "provided something more valuable: An interlude involving two "enemies," Arabs and Israelis, that shows them both as only ordinary people with ordinary hopes, lives and disappointments." Kolirin finds bittersweet humor in the comedy of their melancholy lives and fumbling efforts at communication and common ground, when in fact what they have in common is loneliness and isolation.
The Band's Visit film won seven Ophir Prizes from the Israeli Film Academy, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and acting awards for stars Ronit Elkabetz (her third Award of the Israeli Film Academy), Sasson Gabai (his first win after three nominations) and Saleh Bakri, plus awards from festivals all over the world, including three from Cannes, the most prestigious festival in the world, including the FIPRESCI prize. It was, however, disqualified as Israel's entry for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award nominee because over 50% of the dialogue was in English and denied a nomination for the very astute point that the film makes about communication in the modern world. Even without the nomination, The Band's Visit was one of the most well reviewed films and financially successful foreign imports of 2008.
Producer: Ehud Bleiberg, Koby Gal-Raday, Guy Jacoel, Eylon Ratzkovsky, Yossi Uzrad
Director: Eran Kolirin
Screenplay: Eran Kolirin
Cinematography: Shai Goldman
Music: Habib Shadah
Film Editing: Arik Leibovitch
Cast: Sasson Gabai (Lieutenant-colonel Tawfiq Zacharya), Ronit Elkabetz (Dina), Saleh Bakri (Haled), Khalifa Natour (Simon), Shlomi Avraham (Papi), Uri Gavriel (Avrum), Imad Jabarin (Major-general Camal Abdel Azim), Ahuva Keren (Lea), Franois Khell (Makram), Hisham Khoury (Fauzi).
by Sean Axmaker