A strange trip for 'The Band's Visit'

Waiting for direction
The Alexandria Police Band band arrives in a settlement town in "The Band's Visit."
Image copyright Sony Pictures Classics

"The Band's Visit" tells of an Egyptian Police Band arriving in Israel. An Arab cultural center has invited the musicians to play at its grand opening.

But someone messes up, and no one meets them at the airport.

At the cafe
Left to right: Sasson Gabai as Tewfiq, Rubi Moscovitz as Itzik and Ronit Elkabetz as Dina in "The Band's Visit."
Image copyright Sony Pictures Classics

They decide to find their own way to the concert. But they take the wrong bus and get off in a dusty settlement in the middle of nowhere.

"I wonder if you could be so kind to help and direct me to the Arab Cultural Center?" the band leader asks a woman at the only restaurant they find.

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"There is no Arab center here," she says. "No culture! Not Israeli. Not Arab. No culture at all."

Then the band misses the last bus. Now stranded, band members have to bunk down for the night in homes of the locals.

Eran Kolirin
"The Band's Visit" is Eran Kolirin's debut feature. He says when he wrote it he didn't think of it as a comedy and was surprised when people laughed at lines he thought would just produce a smile.
Image copyright Sony Pictures Classics

"It's lost people meeting lost people," says director Eran Kolirin.

Kolirin says the story is completely fictitious.

"Nothing is real in this movie, except for the names of the actors at the end," says Kolirin. "I think this is what you have movies for. You invent stories."

In this story, the officious Egyptian band leader Tewfiq spars with Haled, the youngest band member -- who would rather be playing jazz. There's Dina, the Israeli who runs the local cafe. She is clearly looking for intellectual stimulation, and perhaps more.

As the characters reveal their sadnesses, they find they have more in common than differences.

Sasson Gabai as Tewfiq Saleh Bakri.
Image copyright Sony Pictures Classics

Kolirin says he wanted to create a story where people find some quiet and comfort in the midst of the conflicts of settlement life. He claims he didn't think the film was a comedy until he showed it to an audience.

"It was always kind of a sad movie for me, and maybe a smile movie," says Kolirin. "But I came to learn that when 200 people smile together, it sounds pretty loud."

The film won seven Israeli Academy Awards, and a Cannes Film Festival Jury prize for young moviemakers. It's done very well at other festivals, except one.

"The Abu Dhabi Film Festival accepted the movie, and then it was disinvited at the last moment, mainly due to political reasoning," Kolirin says.

At the roller disco
Characters in "The Band's Visit" slowly reveal their sadnesses and their hopes, including in this scene at the local roller disco.
Image copyright Sony Pictures Classics

Kolirin says the reason was the movie was made in Israel. When asked if that's sad, given the film's themes of Israelis and Arabs learning to get along, he laughs.

"Believe me, there are sadder things in this part of the world than this movie not being shown around," he says.

The film ran into another roadblock. Israel chose "The Band's Visit" as the official selection for best foreign language Oscar. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rejected it for having too much English in the script.

Eran Kolirin shrugs it off. It's all been a learning experience, he says. This is, after all, his first feature film. He now knows a lot more about being a director.

Ronit Elkabetz as Dina in "The Band's Visit."
Image copyright Sony Pictures Classics

"Maybe I am more open to say to people today, 'I'm not really sure what I am doing. I'm not really sure if this works,'" says Kolirin.

He also has learned about the way the world sees where he's from. Some of the actors in his film have worked in Hollywood, too, but in very different roles.

"It's like they always say in Israel. Uou climb up, you get to be a star on TV and a star in cinema, like being the good guy, the police guy or whatever. And then you get the Hollywood contract to be the terrorist," he laughs.

Eran Kolirin says he has another film project in the works, but he won't get to it for a while. With "The Band's Visit" now launched in the U.S., he just wants to go sleep somewhere for a while.