By Hannah Lee
An addition to this year’s Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia was a showing of the 2007 film, The Band’s Visit, followed by a Q&A with the director, Eran Kolirin. It was held on April 15 at the new home of the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr.
The film is a bittersweet account of what happens when the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra mistakenly heads to the remote fictional desert town of Bet Hatikva, where there is no Arab Cultural Center (“no Arab Cultural Center, no Israeli culture, no culture”) to stage their concert performance. They are stranded there, with little Israeli money, until the inter-city bus arrives the next day. Despite the tension between their two countries, they’re greeted with a range of generous and grudging hospitality.
The Band’s Visit won eight Israeli Ophir Prizes awarded by the Israeli Film Academy. Rotten Tomatoes reported that 98% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 108 reviews, and gave it a golden tomato for best foreign film of 2008.
Deborah Baer Mozes, the cultural attaché for the Israeli embassy, started the Q&A by asking what was the director’s inspiration? It was the character of the Egyptian “General” (Lieutenant-Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya, superbly played by the Iraqi Jew, Sasson Gabai) dealing with his inner turmoil, of “something underneath trying to escape.” Another audience member asked about his inspiration from the Egyptian playwright, Ali Salem, whose “My Drive into Israel” was a memoir of his 1994 trip to Israel following the signing of the Oslo Accord. Salem later described the trip as not “a love trip, but a serious attempt to get rid of hate. Hatred prevents us from knowing reality as it is.” His pro-peace sentiments were controversial and Salem was banned from publication in Egypt afterwards.
An audience member asked why could the characters make phone calls from the public telephone booths without any simonim (Israeli phone tokens)? The director gave both a practical and a poetic reply: the “142” number sequence allows one to make a collect call without simonim, but it’s far easier to make a phone call without money than to send an Egyptian band to Israel.
Another audience member noted that the filming was done in Yeruham (a desert town in the northern Negev, about 15 km from Dimona). Kolirin has a fondness for these towns, which were planned to expand settlement into the desert, but which became dismal, forgotten places. He expressed nostalgia for their architecture, which are gravestones to a grand idea.
How was The Band’s Visit received in the Arab world? It was banned, of course, but it did get one screening in Cairo and Kolirin traveled there as the guest of the Israeli embassy. It was a “schizophrenic feeling” for him, as it is a country so much like his own, but still foreign.
An audience member asked about the choice of having some characters being changed by the band’s visit, but Kolirin and other audience members disputed a change, as in whether the Egyptian character Simon completed his concerto overture. The director said that he was more interested in a change in perspective (including that of the viewer, as in the phantom girlfriend who actually does make a phone connection) than for any external change.
Kolirin’s second film, The Exchange, was shown at the 68th Venice International Film Festival last September and will be released in the United States later this year.