Israeli film ‘The Band’s Visit’ lights up the crowd at Telluride

It may seem an unlikely premise for a hit film, but patrons of the esteemed Telluride Film Festival in Colorado confirmed over the weekend what filmgoers at the Cannes Film Festival and Sony Films executives realized earlier this year – …

It may seem an unlikely premise for a hit film, but patrons of the esteemed Telluride Film Festival in Colorado confirmed over the weekend what filmgoers at the Cannes Film Festival and Sony Films executives realized earlier this year – the Israeli film The Band’s Visit is a keeper.

Written and directed by first-timer Eran Kolirin, the whimsical tale follows a band of Egyptian musicians who end up lost in a small town in the Israeli desert, focusing on the human interaction between the two sets of people.

In May, the film, competing at Cannes for the Un Certain Regard prize, which awards young talent and encourages innovative and audacious works, won the ‘Coup de Coeur du Jury’. The Band’s Visit also won the prestigious Fipresci award given by the International Federation of Film Critics, and the Cinefil award given by cinematography students. As a result, the film was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics in Cannes, and is slated to be shown in 35 US cities beginning later this year.

The film, starring Saleh Bakri, Ronit Elkabetz and Sason Gabay, tells the story of a small Egyptian police orchestra that comes to Israel in the early ’90s. They come in order to play a concert in the opening ceremony of an Arab culture center which is located in the central city of Petah Tikva. But due to a snafu, the band – left at the border, and on its own – find their way to Beitha Tikva, a fictional, small town in the Negev.

Interacting with the locals, the night the orchestra spends in Beitha Tikva becomes a strange and funny night that changes all of the characters’ lives, in a small but important way.

“By pic’s end it’s not just that the Israelis and Egyptians have learned something about each other, they’ve learned something about themselves. Mastering these lessons without becoming artificially rosy-eyed would defeat a lesser talent, but both in script and direction Kolirin proves he’s more than up to the task,” wrote Variety’s Jay Weissberg.

“Charming and absorbingly humorous are words which best describe The Band’s Visit (Bikur Hatizmoret),” wrote Fipresci’s Steve Ayorinde. “This film is an example of what a filmmaker is able to achieve with practically nothing. And in both script and direction, The Band’s Visit strives to convey nothing other than the challenges that might be inherent in the relationship between two sets of people who might be mutually suspicious of each other.”

According to The Jerusalem Post’s Hannah Brown, the film “isn’t so much about cultural differences as similarities between the visiting Egyptians and Israeli residents of a God-forsaken Negev town.” Overlooked by the high-tech boom and other economical advances of modern day Israel, the simple townspeople ironically have more in common with the Egyptians than their own countrymen.

“Anyone expecting some serious commentary on the Middle East or Israeli-Egyptian tensions will be disappointed, while anyone who is even faintly interested in life [in Israel] will love the film,” concluded Brown.

Kolirin said he conceived of the film after imagining a uniformed man singing an Arabic song, and he developed the story from there.

“When I was a child, I often watched Egyptian films with my family”, said the 34-year-old Kolirin. “It was a common practice in Israel in the early 1980s. In the late afternoon on Friday, we’d be glued to the screen, watching complicated intrigues, impossible loves, and heartbreaking tearjerkers starring Omar Sharif, Pathen Hamam, Idel Imam, and all the other regulars, on the only national television network Israel had at the time. It was pretty strange, in fact, for a country that spent half its time at war with Egypt and the other half in a sort of cold and barely cordial peace with its neighbor to the south.”

At Telluride this past weekend, Kolirin briefly welcomed guests to a private patron and press screening of the film at the beginning of the festival, according to the IndieWire website. The film, which received a plug last week in Entertainment Weekly, had attendees buzzing favorably after the showing.

Asked during a question and answer session at Telluride about the recent wave of strong Israeli cinema, the film’s producer Eilon Rachkovsky noted that filmmakers back home seem mostly done “dealing with political issues all the time.” But, politely interrupting his colleague, Kolirian stated, “I have to disagree, this is a political movie.”

Michel Zana of France’s Sophie Dulac Productions told Bloomberg that he put money into The Band’s Visit because it was “political without being political, an encounter of two peoples, a story about love and music.”

Kolirin insisted that the script stay personal, even as potential investors pressured him to make it more political, said producer Rachkovsky.

Kolirin’s first work for cinema was the screenplay for the film Zur Hadassim, for which he won the Lipper Prize for best script at the Jerusalem International Film Festival in 1999. In 2004, he wrote and directed The Long Journey, a film made for television. The Band’s Visit is Kolirin’s first feature film.

Despite the attention its received, The Band’s Visit isn’t the only Israeli film being screened at Telluride, a 30 year-old cinematic institution focusing on independent films. Cannes Camera D’Or winner Jellyfish, by husband and wife team Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret one of Cannes’ top prizes, was also one of the featured films, another indication that Israeli cinema has broken through to an international audience.

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