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Jewish Journal

Film: Israel’s ‘Band’s Visit’ finally plays L.A.

by Tom Tugend

February 7, 2008 | 7:00 pm

Ronit Elkabetz and Sasson Gabai in The Bands Visit

Ronit Elkabetz and Sasson Gabai in The Bands Visit

Jewish-Arab relations, sometimes in war, occasionally in love, are frequent themes of Israeli movies, but rarely are they examined with the subtle humor and sensitivity of "The Band's Visit."

At the center of the leisurely action is the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, eight Egyptian men in immaculate light-blue uniforms, who have come to Israel to perform at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in Petach Tikvah.

Nobody meets the band at Ben-Gurion Airport and, after futile attempts by the Egyptians and Israelis to communicate in broken English, the group is loaded on a van to Bet Hatikvah, a forlorn settlement in the Negev.

Arriving at the dusty little town, which seems to have been lifted from an old John Wayne western, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), the leader of the band, asks Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), the lusty proprietress of a cafÃ(c), for directions to the Arab Cultural Center.

Dina sums up the glamour of her community by answering that there is "no Arab culture here, no Israeli culture, no culture at all."

The town folks offer to put up the visitors in their homes overnight, and in halting conversations, Israelis and Egyptians talk not about politics and wars but of their everyday work and families.

Dina takes the widowed Tewfiq to a local restaurant, where the odd couple is eyed with considerable curiosity. The Egyptian is at first reserved and suspicious, but warms up under his companion's genuine interest and sympathy, until both join the jukebox in a rendition of Gershwins' "Summertime."

Most of the other binational encounters are handled with light humor, often tinged with a touch of sadness, but for one hilarious episode.

The band's handsome young trumpet player, who idolizes jazz icon Chet Baker, encounters the resident Israeli nebbish and accompanies him on a blind date at a roller-skating rink. When the local boy proves too awkward to make any advances to his date, the more experienced Egyptian guides him along, wordlessly, but with eloquent gestures.

"Band's Visit" is a very auspicious debut for 34-year-old Eran Kolirin, directing his first feature film. Unlike most young Israeli directors, Kolirin did not go to film school, but apprenticed himself to his father, a movie editor and director.

He thought he had hit the jackpot when the Israel Film Academy picked "Band's Visit" as the top domestic picture of the year, which automatically qualified it as the country's entry in the Oscar race for best foreign language film.

But something strange happened on the road to Hollywood's red carpet.

Under the rules of the American Academy, more than half the dialogue in a foreign film entry must be in the originating country's own language. However, "Band's Visit," whose Egyptian and Israeli characters communicate mainly in broken English, didn't meet the requirement and was disqualified by the Oscar committee.

Even so, Sony Pictures, the film's distributor, entered it in the general Oscar categories of best picture, director, screenplay, actor and actress -- none of which came through for the film.

"Nobody in Israel thought about the language problem," said Kolirin, who spent four years making the film.

When he heard about the adverse American decision, "I was pissed off for a few days, but I've gotten over it," he said during a visit to Los Angeles.

Since no Egyptian actors would accept a role in an Israeli film, Kolirin cast Israeli actors with roots in Morocco, Iraq or other Arab-speaking countries. "However, we had to teach them to speak with an Egyptian accent," he said. Kolirin is a seventh-generation sabra on his father's side, and, like many Israelis, he is struggling with his identity.

"The problem is that we are part of the Middle East but live in an increasingly Westernized country," he observed. "I wonder how much of me is Arab, not through genes, but by living in this region."

"The Band's Visit" is now playing at Laemmle's Town Center in Encino and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, and begins Feb. 29 at the Fallbrook 7 in West Hills. For information, visit www.laemmle.com

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