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'The Band's Visit' fairy tale almost included an Oscar nomination

Colin Covert
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret)

Director: Eran Kolirin
Cast: Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri, Khalifa Natour, Imad Jabarin, Tarak Kopty
Distributor: Sony
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
First date: 2007
UK Release Date: 2007-11-09 (Limited release)
US Release Date: 2007-12-07 (Limited release)
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The good news for first-time director Eran Kolirin was that his culture-clash comedy "The Band's Visit" would be Israel's official entry in this year's Academy Awards. The bad news came soon afterward. The ironic political fable was disqualified because its Arab and Israeli characters communicate in English.

During a recent visit to Minneapolis, the trim, energetic Kolirin reacted to the absurdity of the situation with a what-can-you-do shrug.

"I don't think you can look at `The Band's Visit' if you're not into regulation and word-counting and say this is not a foreign language film. They made this rule so an American producer wouldn't use American actors to make a movie in Romania and enter it as a foreign film. Then the rule becomes much bigger than the idea it stands for."

The ruling was a funhouse reflection of his film's theme, that cultural restrictions are hostile to human happiness. The film follows eight Egyptian musicians marooned for a day in a small Israeli town and the tentative friendships they forge with their Jewish hosts.

Cultural exchange "is a basic, fundamental question of what humans can give to each other emotionally, which is what stands as the basis of why to make peace at all," Kolirin said. "It's the most basic thing, but all this dialogue is being overlooked from a capitalist point of view, which is all about how much can you take?"

Kolirin recalled his youth, when his nation's single TV station broadcast Israeli programming half the day and Arabic programming the other half. Now there are 200 channels, and no one is exposed to their neighbors' ways of life.

"This connection that did exist once is getting more and more to be a cultural division," he explained, an insight that adds a somewhat melancholy touch to his feel-good fable.

"It's a fairy tale, a once-upon-a-time story," Kolirin admitted. "I found it tough sometimes to get the gentle tone right. It's easy to be angry all the time. Being dark is addictive. It's a shield, somewhere, to hide yourself. When you do something gentle, you're also very vulnerable."

His story doesn't end on an unrealistically upbeat note, though. It's doubtful they all live happily ever after.

"It's very clear to me that at the end of the story when it finishes all the characters are back to real life, which is so mediocre. Nobody advances. We never advance anywhere; we always go back to our old positions and make our old mistakes."

Kolirin avoided explicit political messages, preferring to mix social and personal issues in unconventional ways.

"It has a political statement in the way I feel comfortable in speaking, not like an issue film," he said. "If I had a statement, I wouldn't be wasting three, four years of my life with this movie. If it can all go to a statement, why bother?"

The film's vision of multi-ethnic coexistence was a carefully maintained illusion. Because it was impossible to import Egyptian actors to play the stranded band members, Kolirin used Israelis of Iraqi and Palestinian descent, coaching them on the Egyptian Arabic dialect that the characters would speak. And the film won't be distributed in Arab countries. At least not officially.

"They can download it on the Internet," he said with a chuckle. "My composer just left me a message saying there was a good review in Lebanon. I was very happy."

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(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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