Few weeks ago, the Israeli embassy in Egypt screened internationally acclaimed smash “The Band’s Visit at the Four Seasons hotel in Giza. The event was attended by representatives of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries, Egyptian author and playwright Ali Salem (who was expelled in 2001 from the Egyptian Writers Union for visiting Israel and normalizing cultural relations), and renowned Egyptian author and columnist Anis Mansour.
In the following weeks, and up until this very week, Egyptian publications broke the silence on the low-key event, accusing the Israeli embassy of pressuring the government into normalizing relations. Independent dailies like El Badeel called for Egyptian attendees – whose identities remains largely obscure to most publications – to be blacklisted, and for Egyptian intellectuals to take a tougher stance against similar Israeli initiatives.
I met up with the film’s director Eran Kolirin the day after the screening at Groppi coffee shop Downtown, before the media storm broke out. Hailed by the handful of local critics who watched it, “The Band’s Visit is a tender, bittersweet comedy about an Egyptian police orchestra that gets lost in a small Israeli town.
Banned by the Cairo Film Festival, the film won last year’s Un Certain Regard award at the Cannes Film Festival and the best actor award for Sasson Gabai at the European Film Awards, among a host of other prizes.
The initial tension I felt at the start of the interview with Kolirin rapidly vanished the moment he started reminiscing about the Egyptian melodramas he used to watch with his grandmother, his love for great British filmmaker Mike Leigh and the challenges he faced to produce his directorial film debut.
Kolirin fell in love with cinema when he was still a toddler. His father was a filmmaker, and some of Kolirin’s earliest memories are in editing rooms.
His influences vary from classical commercial directors such as Hitchcock and Leone, to the modernists like Antonioni, and Tati. I am a kid from the 80s though and my biggest encounters with cinema happened through the films of Mike Leigh, he says.
Leigh’s deadpan humor and stark observations can be easily detected in Kolirin’s film.
“The Band’s Visit was conceived through a single image that haunted Kolirin: A pedant policeman, who suddenly opens up his mouth and sings in Arabic. “I really don’t know where this idea came from. I thought this image is kind of a metaphor for the whole movie I wanted to make; a movie that has a kind of contradiction between a very strict and dry exterior and turbulent emotions.
This sense of generic contradiction is what drives the comedy forward. “On one hand, I grew up watching these Egyptian melodramas and Hollywood movies that takes you back. But when I grew up, I was opened up to European film and the dry comedies of [French director] Jacques Tati which compelled me to be objective and not manipulate the audience. But I also felt like I wanted to make people cry like those great Egyptian melodramas.
This contradiction is reflected in the film, particularly in the carefully orchestrated color scheme, disparity between scenery and human subjects, and the sparse cinematic language. What the ‘other’ represents to each party is a kind of trance bound to end soon; a central theme Kolirin continuously explores and emphasizes throughout the film.
“When the orchestra sees the small town from afar, they feel as if they are walking into a kind of a dream, while when the locals see the orchestra; they feel as if a dream has walked into their life. When Dina changes into the dress, she and Tawfiq enter into a kind of a dream-like existence. When Tawfiq wakes up in the middle of the night without his uniform, he’s still in that dream. Everybody is out of their costumes for that one day. The dream is gone soon though. [Real] life begins again.
In one of the most moving scenes, Dina recalls the romances of Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama, comparing her life and losses to them.
“I grew up watching Egyptian movies in the ’80s; everybody in my generation has. Those Friday afternoons that Dina describes in the film, when we all watched Egyptian cinema, holds a very strong memory for me.
Those movies had long been gone off of our TV screens. It wasn’t the clashes between the countries that caused it, it was the opening of the media markets, and the 952 channels of American crap.
“That scene is also about the loss of nativity and innocence. It’s my nostalgic take on this past. I remember once walking into a record shop and listening to [Om Kulthoum’s] “Inta Omry which I haven’t heard before or maybe heard but didn’t know what it was. The minute the violins started playing, a strong shiver went down my spine. It wasn’t a sound of some exotic strange music; it was the sound of my childhood, he says.
Kolirin struggled for nearly seven years to produce “The Band’s Visit. Israeli Film Fund rejected his script several times.
“They believed I didn’t have enough experience to make a film. They thought my script was too small for a cinema screen, that it didn’t contain enough tension, that it’s unrealistic. I made a film for TV called ‘The Long Journey’ that no one saw, but got good reviews. Eventually, they agreed to give me half the budget. TV, who usually provides the other half, gave us a third of what they usually give because they thought it’s ‘too artistic’ and nobody would want to see it.
The rest, as they say, is history: Standing ovation in Cannes, unanimous glowing reviews (the film scored a rare 98 percent positive reviews on rottentomatoes.com) and warm reception in Europe, a continent usually hostile to Israeli films.
Kolirin wasn’t thoroughly content with all positive reviews though.
“Critics can be lazy sometimes, just discussing the plot and that’s it. Many critics lauded the film for ‘its beautiful message;’ of saying how we all could live together and all that. That’s bulls**t. I never intended my film to be like that, I never thought of it like that. The film is about loneliness, of people trapped in their past and can’t escape it.
As for his visit to Cairo, a city he had never been to before, Kolirin said that he feels schizophrenic about the whole experience. “It’s a place that’s too close, but yet so far, he said. “It’s strange. It feels like a déjà vu for me, of childhood memories from my past and a place I know.
But, admittedly, he didn’t deny his excitement to be here, “to feel like I belong. “We feel like the child that was never getting invited to the party. It’s something I feel on a very personal level, not a political one. We’ve always suffered from this schizophrenic feeling. I mean, on one hand, we want to be like the west, we play football in Europe, and yet, we’re still in the Middle-East where we want to be accepted, but can’t be accepted.
As for the Egyptian Actors Union who blocked the film from participating in last year’s Middle-East Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, Kolirin had nothing much to say. “One thing I don’t want to be is the moral lecturing Israeli. The Egyptian’s acting union is an Egyptian affair and I respect this. I was a bit upset of course, but honestly, I think it was stupid and a mistake from our behalf for making big publicity about it.
He continued: “I really don’t know what the word ‘normalization’ means is, but it’s obviously everything. I don’t care, and I’m not a political man. I make films about personal issues that trouble me. I do understand though the political situation and Egyptian’s support for the Palestinian cause. I also understand that everything in the region is regarded from a political prism.
“The Band’s Visit was also criticized in Israel by the radical right, who claimed that the Egyptian characters were portrayed in a better light than their Israeli counterparts, while leftists complained that the film’s too soft.
One would presume that the phenomenal success of the film should have turned Kolirin into an overnight millionaire.
After all, “The Band’s Visit is the most s
uccessful Israeli film in nearly three decades, garnering millions in France, the US and elsewhere (the film scooped $3 million in its American theatrical run, a colossal number for a foreign film).
Surprisingly, Kolirin has earned scratches from the film’s grosses. “There are a lot of people who made money out of this film, but not me. It was my first movie, and I gave up its rights in order to make it.
“I got lots of offers to work in America, but nothing really touched me. Sometimes though, when I wake up in the middle of the night, sweating because I don’t have an A.C., I feel like I should go work there because I need the money, I feel like I need to able to buy a house for my son someday.