Friday, March 17, 2017

Revisiting “The Band’s Visit”: Musicians Without Borders

With the U.S. debating the terms on which foreign visitors can enter the country and Washington D.C. making an apparent shift in its policy toward Israel and Palestine, I sat down to watch a ten-year-old Israeli film called The Band’s Visit. It, like so many of our news stories of late, focuses on what happens to those who cross international borders. The Band’s Visit tells the fictive story of a small Egyptian band, officially the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. The eight men, in their elaborate formal uniforms, fly to Tel Aviv for a cultural exchange, but get far more than they bargained for. I’d long heard of this film, but  didn’t anticipate that it is less a political statement or a satire of bungling bureaucracy than a gentle reminder that people are people, no matter their point of origin.

The film begins with a prime example of cross-cultural misunderstanding. After its arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, the proud little band discovers there’s no liaison present to smooth its way to its performance venue. One band member, the group’s foremost Romeo, is delegated to inquire at an airport information desk. Speaking in mangled English, he asks the Israeli receptionist about transportation options. The men end up on a public bus that drops them at a town in the middle of nowhere. Yes, this is Beit Hatikva, but no one is expecting the band’s arrival. Eventually, the problem becomes clear. Arabic languages lack a “P” sound, and regularly substitute a “B.” The bandsman apparently inquiring about Beit Hatikva (“House of Hope”) actually needed directions to Petah Tikva (“Opening of Hope”), a well-established industrial city just outside of Tel Aviv. 

Anyway, it’s almost nightfall, and the men are going to need food and a place to sleep. The denizens of Beit Hatikva are a hard-scrabble bunch, most of them marked by dreams that have gone awry. But, led by the big-hearted Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) who owns the seedy local café, they open their own homes to the band members. The film cuts between several of these home-stays, which variously include an amusing trip to a roller-skating rink, an awkward dinner with a deeply stressed young married couple, and a revealing conversation between the proud but sad leader of the troupe and the earthy Dina, who feels she has squandered her own chances for happiness. Nothing earth-shattering happens, but before the night is out everyone knows everyone a bit better. And just a small amount of magic has made some drab  lives slightly more endurable.

Then comes morning, and the eight musicians set off for their proper destination, where their mutual love of music is at last on full display.

The Band’s Visit, a popular film both in Israel and abroad, was selected to represent Israel in the competition for the 2008 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. One problem, though: in the interest of realism, the Egyptian characters speak Arabic together, while the Israelis speak Hebrew. When members of the two groups need to communicate across national lines, English is their lingua franca. Since more than 50% of the film’s dialogue is in English, the Academy disqualified it from the Foreign Language Film category. A shame, truly.

Less shame than tragedy is the death in 2016 of the beautiful and soulful actress Ronit Elkabetz, who succumbed to cancer at age 51. The star of many Israeli films, she last played the very different role of an Orthodox Jewish wife denied a divorce by her husband in 2014’s Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem.  She also co-wrote and co-directed. Her passing is a huge loss.  

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