Band director pitches tent on cultural border

“The Band’s Visit,” like almost every Israeli film that reaches these shores, will inevitably be interpreted by American audiences as a comment on Middle East politics.

Since it centers on the interaction between a group of Egyptians and a smattering of Jews — a uniformed band stranded in a forlorn Israeli development town is befriended by a few locals — the film might be construed as a metaphor for coexistence.

But writer-director Eran Kolirin’s debut feature reflects a longing for Arabic culture felt by the Israeli characters — and many Israelis, he says.

“There is this connection,” Kolirin explains. “In some families it’s very apparent, where the father or the grandmother came from Egypt. In some cases it’s more emotional, coming from just living there, hearing the music, seeing films, being in the region.”

Americans used to thinking of Israel as a Western society often forget about its Eastern influences. “The Band’s Visit,” Kolirin suggests, is a kind of elegy for a vanishing cultural past.

“This kind of connection is, unfortunately, fading,” he asserts during a recent stop in San Francisco. “What Israelis feel is like a phantom pain in a hand that was cut off.”

Kolirin, a soft-spoken but self-assured fellow, hastens to add that he’s extrapolating from his own experience growing up in the Middle East.

“As a kid I would watch Egyptian movies, I would hear Arabic music. When I hear Arabic music, it rings a tone of my childhood to me, different from someone who grew up in San Francisco would hear it as completely exotic.”

“The Band’s Visit” opens Feb. 15 around the Bay Area.

The film was Israel’s submission to the Academy Awards in the best foreign language film category, but was disqualified for containing too much English and replaced by the war film “Beaufort.”

The controversy had the effect of not only raising the profile of “The Band’s Visit,” but of audience expectations as well. “The Band’s Visit” is a splendid deadpan comedy with poignant resonance, but be advised that it moves at a measured pace with an abundance of small gestures rather than dramatic plot turns.

Although the 34-year-old Kolirin was born in Israel, the word “schizophrenia” pops up a lot during the interview. His mother was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the war, while his father traces his family back seven generations in the Old City.

“My identity is not very clear to me — who am I, what is my connection with the region — so part of it is a kind of feeling of disconnection,” he says, marshaling his energy against a cold and jet lag. “I think it’s something that a lot of Israelis share.”

The central relationship in “The Band’s Visit” is between the straight-laced bandleader Tewfiq (played by Sasson Gabai)

and a divorced café owner, Dina (Ronit Elkabetz). In between the culture clash and the awkward silences, they find a moment of common ground.

“For Dina, what she has to give is something that’s very much associated with Israelis, and this is the lack of culture,” Kolirin says. “I’m not saying it in a bad way, but in the way that they are quick, they are here and now, they will improvise, they are not too confined [by] strict ways of behavior.

“But they miss something because they are so into the here and now,” he continued. “In my own fantasy world, the Egyptian side has this three-dimensional, rooted traditional history, but Tewfiq lacks the here and now.”

Kolirin recognizes that there’s no stopping progress. But for a young man, he has a keen appreciation of what gets lost along the way.

“This whole identity thing is complex and fluid,” he says. “Influences come in, they go out. Israel is going West, Egypt is going West, so they are

meeting at the end in the McDonald’s. Not where they could have met, not where they originated from, so close. They will meet at America.”

Kolirin gives a short, rueful laugh, as if he’s thinking about the Egyptian movies that aired on TV when he was a kid.

“Tewfiq and Dina, they share this kind of nostalgia, but their sons will not share this nostalgia,” he says quietly.

“The Band’s Visit” opens Feb. 15 at the Embarcadero and Stonestown in San Francisco, Albany Twin in Albany, CineArts Century in Pleasant Hill, Guild in Menlo Park, Los Gatos Twin in Los Gatos, Santana Row in San Jose and CineArts Sequoia in Mill Valley.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.