Band on the run: Eran Kolirin's film "The Band's Visit" opens in the Bay Area this week. (Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

Eran Kolirin and "The Band's Visit"

Judy Stone February 12, 2008

Eran Kolirin is an Israeli director who made a comedy to try to understand why he feels the kind of pain that persists after someone’s arm is cut off. He is still struggling to explain just why he made a film about an Egyptian military band stranded in an Israeli desert even after “The Band’s Visit” took both Best Director and Best Screenplay prize at last year’s Israeli Academy Awards and has won raves at festivals all over the world.

Underneath the poignant humor, the film subtly reflects the director’s attempt to comprehend Israel’s pull between the Middle East and the West.

Before that thought came into focus, Kolirin had a vision of a staunchly disciplined Arab band commander. “I don’t know where this image comes from,” the 34-year old director said while here to promote the film, which opens Feb 15 at the Embarcadero theater. “I began investigating where does it come from and what does it mean for me.”

His ideas began to take shape as he thought back to a travel book by an Egyption playwright who got lost on his first day in Israel and couldn’t find his way to Tel-Aviv. And so, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrives in Israel to play at the opening of an Arab cultural center, but no one is there to meet them. Directed to the wrong bus, the tired and hungry musicians (all but one played by Palestinians) find themselves in the middle of nowhere with only a ramshackle restaurant in view. The lusty, unlucky-in-love owner Dina makes them feel at home. She finds them bedding for the night in some odd spots while the musicians make tentative, gentle connections to their Jewish hosts who seem as lost and lonely as their unexpected guests. And the stoic forbidding commander Tewfiq and hungry- for- excitement Dina find a moving, mostly unspoken solice in companionship.

When Tewfiq (played by Sasson Gabai., an Iraqi Jew) asks if there’s a cultural center nearby, she gruffly replies, “There’s no Arab culture, no Israeli culture, no culture at all.”

“That is something I’m asking myself,” Kolirin, born in Israel, says in heavily accented English. “I am raising questions I am contemplating in myself. How much of Israel is Arabic? How much should it be open to the culture of the region? How much of it is westernized? Who am I? I am from Europe partly. My mother is the daughter of Lithuanian parents. My father, a filmmaker, goes back partly seven generations in Jerusalem.” Part of his family are from the Polish-Ukraine border area. “I grew up in the Middle East. When I hear an Arabic song, it’s like something from my childhood. I feel a longing to some connection I once had like a pain in the arm that was cut off. It is different from when I hear classical western music. I feel a longing for some connection to the place I’m living in. On the other hand I’m living in a country that was built for Jews.”

He lovingly recalls the early 1980s when he and his family breathlessly used to watch Egyptian movies on the only Israeli TV channel. Afterwards, the Israeli Broadcasting Authority’s orchestra, made up almost entirely of Arab Jews from Iraq and Egypt, would sometimes perform. But now the Egyptian movies have almost completely disappeared from Israeli screens. Mohammed Bakri, one of the most famous Palestinian actors in Israel who is the father of the tall, handsome young band musician, tried to get “The Band’s Visit” screened in Ramallah, but it was a time of too much tension between Fatah and Hamas for an Israeli film to be shown.

The state of Israel, Kolirin says, has not been in existence long enough to have a traditional culture. “There’s Jewish tradition from different parts of the diaspora — from Morocco, from eastern Europe. On the one hand Israel seeks a connection to the region, but on the other hand it is very bent on separation from the region so it’s a kind of schizophrenic thing. “

Along with praise for his film, there was also a negative response. The gutsy director anticipated it and was not bothered. “Some people thought I was portraying the Israelis as no good, not educated and that I was portraying the Arabs as too high. The radical left thought I was selling out because Sony Pictures bought the film. They were immediately suspicious because if America buys it there must be something wrong.”

Judy Stone is a longtime Bay Area film critic and author of Not Quite a Memoir: Of Films, Books, the World.