The Joy of Insignificance

Poor Eran Kolirin. When I spoke with the director of The Band’s Visit a few weeks ago, he had been traveling so much that his jet lag kept him from even an hour’s sleep. Then, just minutes before this interview, he managed to whack his head against the door frame of the car that brought him to the Nicollet Island Inn. Despite all this, he was a gracious interviewee.

I loved this movie. The Band’s Visit is funny, touching, and filled with performances so subtle and sweet, it makes you swoon. When I emerged from the theater, I ached to spend a quiet evening over tea with these characters, talking about nothing, and talking about everything.

The Rake: The film opens with "Once, not long ago, a small Egyptian police band got lost in Israel. Not many people remember this. It wasn’t that important." Why is the "unimportant"… important?

Eran Kolirin: Some of this came in this book by Ali Salem, famous Egyptian playwright, the only one who ever came to Israel. He wrote this lovely book about his trip called Journey Into Israel. At the beginning of his book he describes how he lost his way in his car when he came from being a bit stressed and scared from visiting Israel for the first time. Instead of getting to Tel Aviv he got to Netanya. Not a small town like the movie, but it wasn’t where he was heading. So he has to stay there, but he describes a conversation between himself and this girl at the front desk of his hotel. And this tension between this very big premise of history—an Egyptian writer in Israel—and suddenly life throws you into something unexpected and unintentional. The tension between the big story in the background and the small story out front, I found very interesting.

Rake: The Band’s Visit reflects a rich understanding of every character, even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant people. Like the man on the phone. Are any of these people from your life?

Kolirin: You have to find yourself in every character that you write. When my wife and I lived in an apartment in Tel Aviv, there was this guy sitting in his car waiting for hours and hours. We used to call him "The Waiter", because that’s all he would do. Finally, one day I saw him in his car passionately kissing this woman. I think this guy was just waiting for this woman. He waited and waited and something finally happened.

Rake: Tell me how you ended up composing this film. Did you just read Salem’s book and think about a being lost…

Kolirin: The process is always this: First you have this Egyptian band. Then you ask why? Why is this important? Then I can go back and think of my influences, the Egyptian films that I used to enjoy as a child, which influenced me. In fact, so much that I originally wanted Omar Sharif in the starring role. But your first impulse just comes to you. Then you analyze it backwards.

Rake: There’s a political undertone, but a distinct lack of religious undertone. None of the Egyptians, for instance, are ever seen stopping to pray. Was this a conscious effort on your part?

Kolirin: That’s an interesting question. In my life I’m very religious in certain ways, but not with the exterior stuff. There’s something religious in the movie in you insist on looking at it this way—but not in the way the characters act. The conflict is religious, but on a very big scale, but not when a Muslim meets a Jew, not on this level.

Rake: There seems to be a wonderful spontaneity in the film. Like the scene in the restaurant, it felt very real…

Kolirin: Well, it wasn’t spontaneous, it was completely controlled. I don’t know how to improvise. It’s funny that you say that because it’s real—I hope it’s real!—but actually it’s very unrealistic. It’s not naturalistic, it’s very slow acting with precise gestures. Like the scene in the rollerskating rink, with dramatic gestures. But sometimes you have to be very unreal to get something real.

Rake: The Band’s Visit seems to be a call for peace, though a very subtle one–it certainly doesn’t hammer you over the head with a message. But it does focus on the lovely, small things that unite us–food, conversation, music. And if you look at that dinner table scene, with the family staring down the musicians and arguing among themselves, it even suggests that our family strife and our squabbles are the same.

Kolirin: I don’t go it thinking I have this message of peace. The movie likes these characters and is OK with them. That’s something peaceful. Just to let people have the time to think for themselves, to communicate with each other, to share emotion with each other is necessary.

Rake: In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine you said that you don’t think peace is achievable in the Middle East. And yet the film suggests otherwise.

Kolirin: Oh, yeah [Laughs]. If you ask me on a realistic level if I look at what’s happening and do I have any clever solution, unfortunately all I see is bloodshed. Again, there’s reality and there’s the movie that you make, which can yearn for some other kind of existence. That doesn’t mean that in real life if I observe our politics I think it’s very bad.

Rake: I read that there was hope this would be shown at an Egyptian film festival…

Kolirin: No. There’s no way it can be shown in Egypt.

Rake: At all? Anywhere in the country?

Kolirin: Formally, no. There’s a ban against any kind of cultural relationship with Israel. And it was accepted at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, but it was rejected at the last minute due to political pressure. It’s shown in film festivals where I’ve met many audience members from the Arab world. But not formally in any Arab state. It’s a shame, really.






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