The Band’s Visit interview

Photo by Nobuhiro Hosoki. Eran Kolirin, writer-director of The Band’s Visit at The Regency Hotel in New York City on Jan. 30.

With The Band’s Visit, writer-director Eran Kolirin has produced a powerful corrective to the divisiveness that permeates most media representations of Israel’s conflict with its Arab state neighbors. The film follows an Egyptian police band, lost in an out of the way town in the Negev, and the transcendently human connections that develop between the band members and the town’s citizens over the course of one fateful night. Disqualified from being Israel’s official nominee for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award by virtue of having slightly too much English dialogue, The Band’s Visit nonetheless began its New York engagement on Feb. 8 with far more fanfare than that accompanied the recent release of the eventual Israeli submission Beaufort. Cinemattraction sat down with Kolirin at the recent press day roundtable.

Q: It’s very interesting how you have a very quiet, deliberate tone to this film. Was that a very careful exercise, or part of the process of what you wanted to achieve to keep the mood quiet and indirect?

A: The most important thing for me is the tone and the feeling and the pace of things, to have the accurate tone and pace of everything, so you know this is definitely what I wanted to achieve. On the other hand, while you’re doing it it’s not very clear for you what you’re doing, you just try and say let’s do it a little slower until it works but it’s much more an instinctive thing than a very analytical process.

Q: In relation to that, you say in the beginning in a type of little prologue that this is not a matter of any great importance, which on the face of it would almost seem to undercut what’s about to come. Could you comment on that?

A: It’s part of what I was thinking with this movie in the first place, that it has this very big context and very big political premise or whatever but on the other hand it focuses on the completely uneventful things that happen. Of course those things are very important for me and this is why I have spent so much time of my life doing this movie, so of course it has a kind of sarcasm this it wasn’t very important to it because the unimportant is important and vice versa.

Q: Was there a band that really exists?

A: No, nothing is real in the movie except for the names of the actors.

Q: I guess you’re not going to run off to Alexandria and check.

A: No, I don’t care.

Q: Why’s the film banned in Egypt?

A: The film is not banned in Egypt specifically; there is a boycott from Egypt on any kind of cultural exchange and it doesn’t necessarily (apply to) this film specifically. Any other film would be banned as well.

Q: You mean any other Israeli film?

A: Yeah, exactly.

Q: Have you had feedback from any Egyptian expatriates that have seen the film?

A: Yeah, at loads of film festivals there is always one spectator from Egypt coming to me after the show saying, “I liked it. It moved me. It reminded me of so many things.” I get lots of reaction from the Arab world. I guess there are people who won’t like it like anywhere else, but I don’t think that it has any problems with spectators in the Arab world. The percentage of people who like it in the Arab world should be the same as anywhere else. It’s just that from the political establishment point of view, it’s completely another thing.

Q: Has it been shown in the occupied territories?

A: No. We wanted to have one showing in Ramallah, which Mohammad Bakri, the father of Saleh, is also a very famous Israeli actor. He tried to have a projection in Ramallah but it turned out to be a very delicate time now because of the tension between Hamas and Fatah. None of the sides wanted to host. Hamas of course wouldn’t host, but Fatah didn’t want to host a screening anyway.

Q: Could you talk about casting the band leader Tawfiq?

A: There are no big sexy details to the story of casting this movie I met Sasson Gabai and he really liked the script and I just had a good feeling talking to him. (I felt) he had this aura about himself like an Egyptian star. He’s not Egyptian but I had this feeling when I met him that he could add to this role this extra charm of old stardom.

Q: Did he have any hesitancy in playing an Egyptian, as an Israeli?

A: No I think for him it was coming home, a nostalgic thing for him. You know he was born in Iraq and he speaks Arabic, so for him the themes of the movie and the Arabic music all resonate from his own background. For him, I think it was a very personal role to play.

Q: For Saleh Bakri this must have been a big deal, because there’s that whole Palestinian theater group and now he’s in this Israeli film. That must have been a big transition for him.

A: Everything you’re doing in Israel with Palestinians and Israel, there’s always this fear of mine that there will be someone with a radical view who would criticize at the end of any road. But on the other hand you know Saleh is also known as a Palestinian actor in Israel, he had roles in The Habimah, the national theater. You can’t box him into this position as a Palestinian who was just acting there and then got to the big (time), it’s completely not this way. He has a very strong personality and he wanted to do the role; and he did it and that’s that.

Q: How did you arrive at the dynamic between the band leader and Dina (Ronit Elkabetz)?

A: Sometimes, if you hit a good cast and you put a camera (on them) and something happens …

Q: Was it improvised?

A: No, nothing is improvised; I’m a complete control freak. I don’t let anything be improvised, but we worked a lot on the pace and how to do it and where to have the silences and the choreography, or work on the gestures on the movements. We worked a lot on this but there’s also something natural coming from those two actors that somehow (is like) he’s water, she’s fire.

Q: Did you have a lot of takes and/or rehearsal?

A: I had a lot of rehearsal and I did a lot of takes also.

Q: Shot on digital?

A: No, on film and we almost finished all our film stock and we had no money. There was a tough period and I almost finished all the raw material, but it was okay in the end.

Q: How do you account for the very spare look of the film?

A: I get a headache when it’s too filled up with people and I don’t understand what’s going on if there are too many extras walking around. It was very comfortable. I wanted to see just the actors and I wanted to keep it very simple and that was how I could concentrate

Q: When did you hit on the idea of Israeli towns very often being hard to distinguish from each other?

A: I was reading a book by Ali Salem, he’s a very famous Egyptian playwright and was the only one to ever come to Israel. He wrote a journey book about his visit to Israel, which is called Journey to Israel, and in the first chapter he describes how he came by his car, and just from being stressed and his first time driving inside Israel instead of going to Tel Aviv, he went to Netanya which is not such a small city but it’s a little bit up north and it’s not the same place. He had to stay overnight in Netanya and he also just described in there, because of this mistake, he described a conversation he had with the girl at the information desk at the hotel and someone speaks with him about his car and some not important things that happened to him because of his mistake. This was something that also inspired the movie.

Q: Can you talk about the process of coming up with the stark and contrasting color scheme?

A: On the one hand I thought it should have a tone of a legend, a little bit like if I was to tell the story I would say “There was a man and there was a woman and there was a road … “ I wouldn’t say “There was a man who was born here and here and his parents were doing this and that.” No, it’s like the way that you would tell it as a story is the way that you show it: There’s a man, there’s a woman, there’s a room. So it came from there. It’s also about contradictions, this movie, all the time; like when they would sit in the shish kebab restaurant but speak about art and poetry, or in the roller-skating rink, but he (Bakri’s character) would recite Sufi poems. So there’s a kind of contradiction all the time I wanted to maintain, like to have those really shiny outfits, but inside a very simple child’s room, because there was something about this movie with this collision between those two elements that can bring magic to a scenery which has nothing but just a small disturbance. This very nice uniform disturbs a very simple room but there’s something to it that makes it another thing.

Q: What do you mean by “a small disturbance?”

A: There’s always a disturbance in the movie. It’s like to have Tawfiq, this big commander, very strict, sit in the shish kebab restaurant and it’s out of his world, you know, it’s a disturbance in the picture. It’s a small disturbance and it happens all the time in the movie. It’s like even when they (pose for) a shot in the end and the guy comes in with the cleaning at the airport. Maybe the shot is very formal and then there is a little stupid thing coming in or the scenery is completely stupid, but something very formal comes in. So there’s always this contradiction.

Q: Was your sense of these things being funny, ironic, actually causing people to laugh? Did you sense that there was a laugh there?

A: No, I was completely serious about everything, I was really surprised anyone was laughing this hard. I mean I thought it was more of a smile movie but maybe when a lot of people in the audience smile together it sounds like a joke. For me there is a grain of melancholy in everything. The things (are there) that made me smile and laugh, but I was more looking for the accurate tone of things and the accuracy of the situation and the accuracy of the tension and the awkwardness. I wasn’t really thinking I was just going to make people laugh, and one of the reactions I always got about the rough cut of the film from when we screened and showed it was “We thought this was going to be a funny movie and it’s not very funny, this movie.” This was always the reaction and until we came to Cannes and the projection starts and they laugh and after a few minutes laugh again and then everyone’s laughing. We looked at each other and we had no idea that this movie was that funny; we thought you know it’s nice and sometimes you’re sad, sometimes you smile, but never laugh out loud moments.

Q: How did it feel to get a standing ovation at Cannes?

A: I wasn’t really there. It’s like your wedding day. You hear the sea in your ears. Everybody tells you, “you know, this is amazing,” but you don’t really understand it when you’re there.

Q: Can you talk about your choice of music?

A: It was different in different scenes in the movie. First of all there were some places that I had to take the music out of any regional context for me because if I put in Egyptian music or Israeli music then it would have contexts you wouldn’t dream of and it would disturb a certain thing with the scene. So in some places I had to choose music that had no meaning at all for me. It was just music. With the roller-skating, there’s an Israeli author I like very much who said, “Everything a man writes is like a picture of his childhood in some ways.” You know I had in my own youth experiences of the character of a roller-skating rink and this is the music I remember, so it came naturally to me that this is the kind of music that moves me or has some meaning for me, much more than modern music today.

Q: How did you find the character of Dina?

A: She was the most incomplete character for me in the script, because in the script I was very much afraid that she’s a cliché. She could be this femme fatale from the desert that gets a man here and she wasn’t complete as a character until Ronit came and did her. The first time I met Ronit in the rehearsal room, she came and was sitting on the table and she was swinging her legs like a kid. She was listening to what I was saying and then I got that this character most of all is just a teenage girl who, life passes and she has this dance inside her, she’s happy in life – okay, sometimes good sometimes bad – but at the end of the day there’s this teenage girl that lives inside her and this is what made this character complete. She was not this heavy romantic woman, just a teenage girl looking for something to happen.

Q: How did this end up being your first movie and what are you planning next?

A: It wasn’t a choice. I had the script and I did a TV movie before this one and then I could make The Band’s Visit, which I had the script for and that’s the way it happened. As a result, God is great and we’ll see what’s going to happen. I wish I had one more script but writing, it’s a nightmare, it takes time. You know I wish I could say “Yes, I have a script I’m doing it tomorrow,” but it will take time. After being in Israel a little bit drinking coffee doing nothing and then something will happen and maybe I’ll start writing.

Q: Do you see yourself mostly working in Israel, or coming here?

A: I’m attracted very much to the stories in Israel. I understand the people, I would sit on the bus and (see a) character and I would feel him. I don’t really have this instinct here about people, but you know again if I get a script that touches me, maybe.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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