By Erica Abeel | Indiewire February 5, 2008 at 5:10AM
After the screening in last year's Cannes, the applause wouldn't stop, keeping the visibly moved filmmakers and cast in the theater. The film was "The Band's Visit," a first feature from Israeli director Eran Kolirin. Arriving without buzz on the Croisette, it quickly emerged as a gem of Cannes '07, and nabbed the international critic's prize for the Un Certain Regard section. "Band" is a quiet, pared-down film, which like a story by Chekhov, strips bare its characters' lives. Toplined by the great Ronit Elkabetz, leading Israeli actor Sasson Gabai, and gifted Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, it concerns an Egyptian Police band that arrives in Israel to play at an initiation ceremony for an Arab cultural center.
Through a series of mishaps, the men end up stranded in a desolate little Israeli town east of nowhere in the heart of the desert. Dina (Elkabetz), the sexy, gravel-voiced owner of a cafe, sees that the Egyptians are fed and lodged for the night till the morning bus. During the band's brief visit, the Egyptians and their Israeli hosts connect in ways that promote the peace process more than a fly-by from Condi Rice. Mercifully, Kolirin's implied brief for peaceful co-existence also dodges sentimentality.
"Not many remember this... It wasn't that important," states the opening title about the story to unfold. It's a wonderful ploy. Of course it's not important in the cosmic scheme, nor is anything, viewed in that context, Kolirin suggests -- but given the human need to disclose oneself to others, what happens is damned important. In artfully paced scenes, sensual, forthright Dina reveals to Tewfiq (Gabai) her messy romantic past -- "I fucked up." A portrait of zipped-up dignity in his powder blue uniform, Tewfiq scarcely dares to meet her eye. Like a character out of "Uncle Vanya," Dina is stuck in a life without great prospects, yet is determined to persevere (rather more cheerfully than her Russian precursors). Tewfiq, for his part, eventually reveals his own sadnesses. In one of many comic interludes, ladies man Haled (the studly Bakri) gives a late-blooming Israeli boy lessons in how to hit on a girl, and describes in rhapsodic Arabic what it's like to make love. Unlike in Cannes, unfortunately, someone here made the mistake of translating the Arabic.
"Band" was recently pulled from the contest for best foreign language Oscar, because it's more in English than Hebrew. Which is to miss the point. In fact, what Kolirin is getting at in this wondrous film is the failure of any language at all to articulate the topography of loss.
indieWIRE caught up with Kolirin -- who speaks serviceable, if heavily accented, English -- in New York, during a publicity junket to promote his film.
indieWIRE: How did you arrive at the deliberate, quiet tone of this film?
Eran Kolirin: The most important thing for me is the tone, the feeling, the pace. But why I'm doing this is not very clear to me. It's much more of an instinctual thing than an analytical process.
iW: Could you explain why you chose to open with the statement that what happens in the film "wasn't that important?"
Kolirin: The movie has this very big political context. Yet it focuses on the relatively uneventful things that happen. But of course those things are very important for me. That's why I've spent so much of my time doing this movie. So it has a kind of sarcasm.
iW: Did that Egyptian band really exist?
Kolirin: Nothing is real in the movie.
iW: I've heard the film is banned in Egypt.
Kolirin: It doesn't apply just to my film. Any Israeli film would be banned in Egypt.
iW: Have you gotten much feedback from Egyptians?
Kolirin: At festivals there's always one spectator from Egypt who says, 'I like it, it moved me, reminds me of so many things.' I get a lot of reaction from the Arab world at fests. But the percentage of people from the Arab world who like it should be the same as anywhere else.
iW: Has "The Band's Visit" been shown in the occupied territories?
Kolirin: No, we tried to have a projection in Ramallah, but it turned out to be a very delicate time because of tension between Hamas and Fatah. No one wanted to host the screening.
iW: How did you decide to cast Sasson Gabai as Tewfiq the band leader?
Kolirin: There's no big sexy story about casting this movie. I met Sasson and he really liked the script. And I had a good feeling talking to him, he has this kind of oora [aura] about him, like an Egyptian star -- though he's not Egyptian. I thought his allure could add to this role the extra charm of old-style stardom.
iW: As an Israeli, did Gabai have any hesitation about playing an Egyptian?
Kolirin: Not at all, for him it was like coming home, a nostalgic thing. He was born in Iraq, speaks Arabic, and the themes of the movie and Arabic music resonate from his own background. For him it was a very personal role.
iW: Any problems with casting the Palestininan Saleh Bakri, the sexy guy who gets the girl, in an Israeli film?
Kolirin: Everything you do with Palestinians in Israel someone will criticize. But Bakri has also played in Israeli theater. You can't box him into a position of "Palestinian actor." He has a very strong personality and wanted to do the role.
iW: How did you come up with the character of Dina?
Kolirin: She was the most incomplete character for me in the script. I was afraid she's a cliche, this femme fatale from the desert who gets men here and there. She wasn't complete until I met Ronit in the rehearsal. She was sitting on a table and swinging her legs like a kid, listening to what I was saying. And then I got that this character most of all is like a teenage girl, looking for something to happen -- not this heavy romantic woman. And she had this dance inside her. Life? Okay, sometimes good, sometimes bad...
iW: Could you talk about the touching dynamic between Tewfiq and Dina?
Kolirin: Sometimes if you get a good cast, which is the most difficult thing, and you get the camera rolling, good things happen.
iW: You mean, they improvised?
Kolirin: No no, I'm a complete control freak. We worked a lot on the pace and where to put the silences. We choreographed the gestures and movements. We had a lot of rehearsals and a lot of takes. Also, there's something special that comes out of those two actors: he's water and she's fire.
iW: There's a great sense of empty space in this film. What made you gravitate toward such a spare look?
Kolirin: I get a headache when films are too filled up with people. And I don't understand what's going on if there are too many extras walking around. This film was very comfortable for me, I want to see just the actors. This is how I can concentrate.
iW: How did you hit on the pivotal idea of the band getting lost?
Kolirin: I was reading a book called "Journey to Israel" and the author told how he came to Israel by car for the first time and was so stressed and disoriented, instead of getting to Tel Aviv, he ends up in Natania. Because of this mistake, he describes the conversation he has with a girl at the information desk at the hotel. That's what inspired the movie.
iW: Could you talk about the film's stark color scheme -- for instance, the contrast between Dina's crimson dress and the band's powder blue uniforms?
Kolirin: I thought the film should have the tone of a legend. It's also about contradictions. They [Tewfiq and Dina] are sitting in the shish kebab restaurant, and they're speaking about art and poetry. In the roller rink Haled recites a Sufi poem. I like small disturbances, contradictions -- like Tewfiq, this big commander, sitting in that restaurant. Like a shot where you see the band all in a row at the airport, and a janitor crosses the screen with a vacuum cleaner.
iW: How did you find so much humor in this material?
Kolirin: Actually, I was completely serious about everything. I thought it was more of a smile movie -- maybe when a lot of people smile together it's a laugh. For me there was always a grain of melancholy. I was more involved in finding the accurate tone of the film, and the awkwardness. The reaction to the rough cut was, we thought it was going to be a funny movie. And then we came to Cannes and the projection started and people laughed again and again, and we looked at each other, and we had no idea that it was a laugh out loud movie.
iW: What was your reaction to that standing O in Cannes?
Kolirin: I wasn't really there. It's like your wedding day. You don't really understand it when you're there.
iW: Did you consider other endings for the film?
Kolirin: In the script I had another ending. I was trying to push the movie toward a dramatic end. We heard a lot from script experts saying, 'let's have some more energy.' But all those endings, when I tried to push it, didn't feel right for me. Tewqui and Dina can never be together, this would be a complete lie.
iW: And Haled and Dina?
Kolirin: No, for him she was just the means to pass the night. Once the big love has gone away, you're just left with how to pass your night. At the end of the day this story has something in its genetics. If you listen well enough and you follow its genetics, there's no other end.
iW: Do you see yourself working mainly in Israel?
Kolirin: I'm very attracted to the stories in Israel. I understand the people. I sit on the bus and see someone and have a feeling for the character. I don't really have this instinct here. But if I get a script which touches me, maybe.
iW: It's a great time for Israeli filmmakers. Did you expect this for yourself?
Kolirin: That big? No, we didn't imagine. This connection with the audience, it's amazing.