By Anthony Kaufman | Indiewire October 14, 2007 at 12:00PM
"The Band's Visit," it turns out, has not been welcomed with open arms. While first-time filmmaker Eran Kolirin's much-beloved movie about a group of Egyptian musicians astray in Israel won a special prize in Cannes, a distribution pact with Sony Pictures Classics and was looking like a shoo-in as a foreign-language Oscar nominee, the fish-out-of-water comedy has recently faced a series of roadblocks. In the same week the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) deemed "The Band's Visit" ineligible for the foreign-language category because it contained too much English dialogue, the film found itself at odds with two Middle Eastern film festivals, the Cairo International Film Festival and the new Middle Eastern International Film Festival (MEIFF) in Abu Dhabi, neither of which will be showing the film.
Given the movie's subtle political message about fostering dialogue between Israelis and Arabs and its intent to humanize both sides of the increasingly bitter divide, the latter setbacks have been particularly upsetting to producers.
"The Abu Dhabi film festival was very important to us," says Ehud Bleiberg, one of the film's producers. "Because we would like to present it to Arab countries, because it is for hope, because there's a different way that people can have relationships. This is the whole purpose of the film, so people can talk."
Also troublesome is the circumstances in which the producers of "The Band's Visit" discovered they wouldn't be showing at the Abu Dhabi fest (which opens tonight in the Middle East). After receiving a formal invitation on Sept. 14 from MEIFF programmer Nancy Collet (formerly of AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival), congratulating the film on being accepted into the fledgling event's narrative competition section, they were subsequently uninvited.
"It's not the cleanest situation," admits MEIFF Festival Director Jon Fitzgerald, a veteran of the Slamdance, Santa Barbara and AFI Film Fests. "It was an unfortunate miscommunication between Los Angles and Abu Dhabi," he says. "It's a terrific film," says Fitzgerald, "but it didn't make the final roster. It was never invited by me. We hadn't confirmed our slate."
According to Fitzgerald, he never officially approved the email letter of invitation. Even though the letter was copied to him, he says he doesn't remember ever seeing it. "I get 100 emails a day," he says. "We're dealing with an 11-hour time difference. Sometimes people jump the gun."
But "The Band's Visit's" Bleiberg doesn't buy it. He says he was repeatedly asked for assurances from the festival that they would be allowed to play an Israeli film in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. ally that is also considered to be one of the richest and most liberal of Arab nations. "Jon Fitzgerald should be ashamed," he says. "I know it's not them. It's political reasons," he adds, "but why hide behind this nonsense?"
According to Bleiberg and other published reports, "The reason it's not showing is that it's identified as Israeli," he says, "and this is our assumption because the Egyptian Actor's Union contacted Abu Dhabi and threatened that they would boycott them if our film would be there." Egypt Actors Union topper Ashraf Zaki told Variety that if the festival programmed the film, "we would have withdrawn all our support."
But Fitzgerald says he hasn't received any outside pressures. "I had heard coming in that perhaps because of the region, there might be some censorship issues," admits Fitzgerald. "But the senior management gave me unilateral support to choose the films. Nobody has questioned our selections or asked to censor anything. They've given me a clean canvas."
If Abu Dhabi's rejection of "The Band's Visit" was simply on programming grounds, the Cairo International Film Festival's refusal was explicitly political. According to a report in the daily news service Ynet, organizers of the Egyptian event said in a statement, "If we were to show this film, it would be considered normalization [of relations with Israel]." The organizers also reportedly cited a romantic scene between an Israeli female protagonist (Ronit Elkabetz) and one of the Egyptian musicians (Saleh Bakri), saying that it was "shocking and will not be well-received."
Currently, the film does not have distribution in the Muslim world, according to Bleiberg, even though a number of the actors are Arabic. But ultimately, he's not worried that the film will eventually reach Muslim audiences, even if it's through illegally obtained pirated copies. "If that's the price we pay for people to watch it, then so be it," says Bleiberg. "The film is bigger than any festival. I don't think people can prevent it from being screened," he adds. "It will find its way to everyone."
As for the film's Oscar eligibility, Bleiberg was holding out hope on Friday that the Israeli Film Academy would petition AMPAS further. He argues that even if the majority of the dialogue is in English, "it's not real English," he says, "it's gibberish English." He also argues the amount of English heard in the film is small relative to the film's entire running time.
But Bleiberg's argument may be moot. Over the weekend, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli Academy had resigned on the issue, and would submit Yossi Cedar's war movie "Beaufort" instead. Further complicating matters, Bleiberg and other published reports suggest it was "Beaufort's" producers that complained to the Academy about the English language in "The Band's Visit," hoping to disqualify it.
All this politicking for a charming, comic story about Israeli-Arab relations? Turns out the real world is a lot more harsh. As the film's director Eran Kolirin said during a Q&A at the Toronto International Film Festival, "If you take it through the lens of reality, it would stop from the first frame."