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If you're talking with Eran Kolirin, the director/writer of the enormously successful film The Band's Visit, you've caught him between award ceremonies. I sat down with him recently, just two days after his film had won the Grand Prix at the Tokyo Film Festival and a little more than a week before the announcement at the Seville Film Festival that it had been nominated for two European Film Academy Awards, one for Best Screenplay and another for Sasson Gabay for Best Actor.
Kolirin, who insisted he wasn't jet-lagged, looked just a little tired as he sipped coffee at a south Tel Aviv cafÃ© near his home.
Asked how he felt when the film, which tells the off-beat, touching story of an Egyptian police band headed to play a concert in Israel that gets lost and spends the night in a remote Negev town, won three awards at Cannes (arguably the world's most prestigious and important film festival) and received a 10-minute standing ovation, he says, "Of course, you're very excited when your film is in a competition, but I felt a little disconnected. It's already something that is at a distance, this iconic creation."
At Cannes, he learned for certain that his film "works with lots of people. It's like a mirror. People see themselves in it. So it doesn't matter how much they know about Israel, or Egypt, they get caught up in it and can see themselves in the characters."
Some viewers focus on the star-crossed love story between the melancholy orchestra leader (Sasson Gabay) and Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a lonely cafÃ© owner, while others enjoy the comedy of the Egyptian ladies' man (Saleh Bakri) who coaches a shy Israeli on how to act on a date at a roller rink, and still others concentrate on the musicians who bring life to the music of an earlier era and find an appreciative audience among the residents of a remote town left behind by the hi-tech billions that have brought glittering shopping malls to the Tel Aviv area.
Kolirin, 34, thought of the idea for the film about seven years ago and inspiration was as complex as the finished work. He remembers how growing up, he and his family used to watch the Egyptian films that the only local television channel would show on Friday afternoons and also recalls seeing Egyptian bands perform on TV. Those days when a huge percentage of Israelis would gather to share the Egyptian melodramas are for Kolirin "a symbol of something bigger, something that's been lost in Israel, a connection and simplicity that has been lost as we've gotten caught up in the craziness of the Western world."
He then read a book by Egyptian playwright Ali Salem, one of the few Egyptian artists to visit Israel. "He wrote a travel book about Israel. On his first day here, he was his car, feeling scared and getting lost." Instead of getting to Tel Aviv, he ended up in Netanya and stayed overnight there and "he writes about all the unexpected things that happened." But what might have been a throwaway anecdote to most stayed in Kolirin's mind. He began to think about an image of "a man singing Arabic songs in a uniform" and the story began to take shape.
He worked on the screenplay on and off for years, completing other projects in the meantime. Kolirin came to the film industry as a screenwriter, after a studying law for years, but leaving before he got his degree. His father, Gideon, is a director and producer. Kolirin's first screenplay was for his father's drama Tzur Hadassim. Since then, he has written episodes for several television series (including the highly praised Therapy) and wrote and directed a film for television, The Long Journey, which he describes as "a day in the life of a family as they separate and come together."
The Band's Visit can be described in a similar way, as the story of a group of disparate characters who separate and come together, and also of two cultures, Egyptian and Israeli, that wrestle with their simultaneous closeness and isolation. But Kolirin says he had no desire to make a statement about either Jewish-Arab or Israeli-Egyptian coexistence, at least not consciously. "The film came out of my desire to create my own work, to express myself," he says.
But he has pulled off the difficult and risky task of creating a personal film that speaks to people all over the world. The film, which has won 18 awards abroad (many of them audience awards, proof that it speaks to ordinary viewers as well as film festival juries), also dominated the local film award scene this year. It won the Wolgin Award at this year's Jerusalem Film Festival, plus awards for Best Actor (Gabay), Best Actress (Elkabetz) and Most Promising Actor (Bakri). Then, in a rare year of heavy competition, it took the top prize at the Ophir Awards (winning over Joseph Cedar's Beaufort, which took the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival; Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret's Meduzot, which was awarded the Camera d'Or prize at Cannes; and David Vollach's My Father My Lord, which won the World Features Prize at Tribeca), as well as winning Best Director and Best Screenplay for Kolirin, awards for Gabay, Elkabetz, and Bakri and prizes for Best Music and Costumes.
The Ophir triumph would have been a coup for any filmmaker, but now that Israeli films have begun to shine so brightly on the international scene, a lot of the focus is solely on the Best Picture award. Winning this award makes a film Israel's official selection to be considered for one of the five Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominations. Every country can submit one only candidate and this year 62 other countries submitted a film for consideration.
Many in the local film industry hailed the victory of The Band's Visit and were predicting that the film, which was picked up for international distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, a major US distributor, would garner the country's first Oscar nod in 23 years and perhaps even win its first Oscar.
As it turns out, that won't happen.
The problem is that the US Academy's rules for eligibility state that a film must be "predominantly" in a language or languages other than English. In The Band's Visit, the only language the Israeli and Egyptian characters have in common is English and so the dialogue in many scenes is in English - halting, heavily accented, idiomatic and sometimes comically incorrect English - but English nevertheless.
Immediately after the win at the Ophirs, industry insiders began to question whether the English content would get the film disqualified - and it did. After an unsuccessful appeal, the Israeli Academy sent Beaufort, the runner-up, as its entry. But the incident stirred up real controversy in the industry, with some who saw Band as a shoo-in for Oscar glory criticizing the team behind Beaufort, saying it had generated a negative campaign against Band on purpose.
Those familiar with the US Academy and its very American insistence that rules are rules, however, were not surprised by its decision. Disqualifications in this category are not unknown. Ang Lee, for example, Best Director Oscar winner for Brokeback Mountain, recently saw his latest film, Lust, Caution, disqualified as Taiwan's official submission because not enough members of the cast and crew were Taiwanese (the fact that Lust, Caution won the Golden Lion, top prize at the Venice Film Festival, did not sway the US Academy, just as the international prizes for Band did not).
But no matter what has been said by various members of the local film industry in the press, Kolirin doesn't want to go there. "I don't have a lot to say about that," he insists. "It would have been nice but [being disqualified] is not so bad."
He is slightly more talkative on the subject of the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi. The producers received an invitation, which was then withdrawn, reportedly after the Egyptian Actors Union threatened to withdraw all its films from the festival if The Band's Visit was included. (Organizers of the festival subsequently insisted that no official invitation was extended to the film.) "I was always skeptical," he says. "I thought, 'Until we get the tickets, we're not going.'"
Kolirin, the father of a toddler, is happy enough to talk about his film, but admits that doing publicity "is not very fulfilling. You want to enjoy the success of your work, but then you want to start something new." Still, he is not complaining and is overjoyed that so many connect to his film. Musing again on the varied audience reactions that he feels say more about the viewers than the film itself, he remembers a quote from the Tarkovsky classic, Solyaris: "We go to the stars, but we look for a mirror."
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