- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

“The Band’s Visit” (“Bikur Ha-Tizmoret”) didn’t win the Oscar for best foreign-language film on Sunday night. It wasn’t even nominated. That wasn’t because the hilarious and poignant story of culture clash isn’t one of the best foreign films released in the last year — it most certainly is. It’s because the academy decreed that the film, which Israel submitted as its official entry, contained too much English to qualify.

The English dialogue that’s interspersed between the Hebrew and the Arabic, though, highlights one of the movie’s most important themes: The Egyptians and Israelis in the film are near-neighbors who can only understand each other by speaking a language in which none of them are completely adept.

“The Band’s Visit” follows 24 hours in the life of the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra. The band arrives in Israel from Egypt to play a concert, but a mix-up has them taking a bus to the wrong place. They end up in a small Israeli town, where the leader, Tawfiq, asks Dina, a local restaurant owner, where he can find the Arab Culture Centre at which they’re slated to perform.

“No culture,” she responds in broken English in a typically understated and funny scene. “Not Israeli culture, not Arab, no culture at all.”

There’s not another bus until the next day — and no hotel in the tiny town — so Dina finds the men beds for the night at her and her friends’ homes. The Egyptians talk to each other in Arabic, and the Israelis talk to each other in Hebrew, but both find over the course of the evening that the truths of love and art are written in a universal language.

Writer-director Eran Kolirin, 34, in the District recently to promote the film that opens in area theaters today, says the fact that the people in these two neighboring countries speak a third language to understand each other is “part of a bigger tragedy.”

“Hebrew and Arabic are very close languages,” he says. “Instead of what should have been very natural, to converse in those languages which are close, they use English.”

Half of the Jewish population inside Israel comes from Arabic states, he explains, and previous generations of Israelis spoke Arabic. “But the Israeli establishment was trying to erase the use of the ancestral languages because it was a new country and they wanted a new culture,” he says. “They did the same with Eastern European Yiddish.”

The result, he says, is a country separated both from its own past and from the other countries in the volatile region.

One way the film illustrates the idea that culture can bring people together is through the character of Dina, who recalls her childhood when the whole town would watch the Egyptian movies played on television one afternoon every week. “I was in love with Omar Sharif,” she admits, more than a little flirtatiously, to the Egyptian colonel she’s showing around town.

Would a cultural reconnection help the politics of the region?

“Yes, of course, but it’s a totally different way of thinking and it contradicts the fundamental thing for Israel, which is the Jewish State. And the Jewish State in its definition is segregation and separation,” he says animatedly. “You always lose something … If you open yourself up to the region, there’s no more definition of yourself as a Jewish citizen inside a Jewish state. If you stay the Jewish State, you never have this connection. There’s no resolution.”

Americans who read the headlines and assume Israelis and Arabs hate each other might expect the same from the representatives of the groups in “The Band’s Visit.” That’s not the case, however. “For some Israelis, this would also be the expectation,” Mr. Kolirin says. “This is part of what the movie’s toying with. Maybe the expectation is also part of the problem.”

Though Mr. Kolirin is a thoughtful man with many opinions about the country in which he was born and still lives, his funny film is anything but a polemic. “I don’t like a movie to be a column in the newspaper,” he says. “The perspective can be a little more complex about connecting personal loneliness to regional loneliness.”

“The Band’s Visit” was a huge hit in his native land, winning eight Israeli Film Academy Awards, including best film, best director and best screenplay. Mr. Kolirin ruefully notes that the film can’t be formally shown in Egypt, which has a boycott on Israeli cultural products. However, he’s often approached at film festivals by Arabs from places like Egypt who tell him they love the film, too.

“We share the same nostalgia,” says the cultural ambassador with a smile.

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