Each journey begins with a single picture
An image of a stiffly dressed, uniformed man singing a song in Arabic. That was what inspired Eran Kolirin to write 'The Band's Visit,' which has garnered awards at Cannes and elsewhere, and premieres tomorrow in Israel.
Two months before shooting started for the film "Bikur hatizmoret" ("The Band's Visit"), writer and director Eran Kolirin decided to turn the script upside down. He pulled out changes he had made over several months and went back to the original version of the script, which had been written years before. "I felt a kind of suffocation," he explains. "I wanted to go back to the minimalism of the first version."
If he had not done so, "The Band's Visit," which premiers in local theaters tomorrow (Sept. 13), would probably not have been invited to take part in the 2007 Cannes Festival, and would not have won three prizes at that prestigious venue (among them best film in the "Un Certain Regard" category). It probably would not have been chosen to open the Munich Festival, or to be the recipient of four Wolgin awards at the Jerusalem Film Festival (among them best film), nor would it have been a candidate for 13 Ophir awards - the Israeli Oscars (i.e., in every possible category). The contract with Sony Classics, which bought the film for distribution in the United States at an especially high price, would apparently also not have been signed.
Kolirin wrote "Tomorrow," the first version of "The Band's Visit," six years ago. "I submitted this version to the Israel Film Foundation, but the request for funding was rejected a few times," he says. "They claimed that the story was too small, that it was not possible. They asked me how the story could have happened. How could an Egyptian police orchestra have come to Israel for a visit? They said it wasn't dramatic enough. At that time, the awful trend started in Israel of 'expert script-writing' - with people bombarding you with all kinds of special terms, asking you all kinds of questions about the protagonist's desire and his obstacles, and my script didn't fit this format. They kept asking me how this could be, and after I heard so many opinions over and over I started to become convinced."
Kolirin caved in to pressure and began to change the script. The small and delicate story - about an Egyptian police orchestra that comes to Israel and by mistake ends up in an outlying town in the South, and the emotional ties that develop between its members and the townspeople - began to expand. Kolirin made the conflicts between the characters more extreme, as he had been advised to do. He inserted direct references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and changed the simple sort of feeling with which townspeople invited the band's members into their homes. He even planted a dramatic climax toward the end - a huge fire that destroys the restaurant belonging to the heroine, Dina (played by Ronit Elkabetz.)
"Two months before shooting started, I found myself with this swollen script, full of manipulations, and I felt that I had gone too far," Kolirin recalls. "Everybody said the script was excellent, full, much better than the previous versions. Only Eilon Ratzkovsky, the producer, had the right instinct to tell me that it didn't work."
Armed with this minority opinion, Kolirin went back to his computer. He called up the original version of the film, inserted small corrections and brought back its modesty and restraint.
Law, by mistake
Considering the success and warmth with which "The Band's Visit" has been received since it was first screened in Cannes, one may be surprised to learn that not only is this Kolirin's first full-length film, but that he has never formally studied filmmaking. He taught himself the language of this medium at a young age, in a home that lived filmmaking, made films, loved that art - and hated it, too.
Kolirin was born in 1973 in Holon and moved to Tel Aviv when he was 3. His mother is an architect; his father, Gideon Kolirin, is a film director ("Green" - 1981; "Tzur Hadassim" - 1999). "I remember myself at a very young age sitting with Dad in the editing room, visiting the set and watching quality films at home. They explained to me that there are good films and less good films, and there are directors like Hitchcock whose films are must-sees. Even then I knew that every film had editing and a camera. I saw how the camera rolled on a track; I understood how shots come together. The awareness of technical aspects of filmmaking was always present in our home."
Kolirin says that along with his great love for films, there was something traumatic associated with them in his home. The medium of filmmaking was always blamed for the family's lack of economic stability. "We were a 'film-victim' household that had no money and no success. From my mother's point of view, over her dead body would someone else in the family get involved in filmmaking," he says.
And in fact, although he had always been attracted to that art, Kolirin decided to study law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But the forced disengagement did not work. "It was a mistake. A dark time. It was terrible," Kolirin says.
One good thing did come out of his studies. He took the time to write his first script, "Tzur Hadassim," which became a full-length feature directed by his father, starring Danny Steg and Orly Ben-Garti. The film won the younger Kolirin the best script award at the Jerusalem Film Festival. He then received an offer to write for the TV series "Shabbatot vehagim" ("Sabbaths and Holidays"). "I was suddenly getting money for my writing, and that was a good excuse to get up and leave school," he says. Three years after starting his law studies, he left.
He wrote for the TV series for five years, but what he really wanted was to direct. He says he felt more like a director than a writer, that directing had more power than dealing with words.
Anat Asoulin, the series' producer, let him direct the last episode of the third season. He subsequently wrote and directed his first film, the made-for-TV "Hamasa ha'aroch" ("The Long Journey," 2003), which told the story of "the family as a circle that nourishes guilt feelings and fears," as he describes it. The modest film was the dark horse at the Eilat Film Festival, where it won the prize for best Israeli film.
'Depths of feeling'
"I always start writing from a picture I have in my head. Writing for me is a process of decoding this picture," Kolirin says. "Before the writing of 'The Band's Visit,' I had a picture in my head of a very stiff man in a uniform, very disciplined, precise and noble, who at a certain moment opens his mouth and sings an Arab song. From an aesthetic point of view, the film proceeded from this picture. Arab songs typically have vast depths of feeling that come out in a restrained way. I believed the whole film should be found in this picture. It was my 'true north'; it directed me throughout the making of the film."
After this image settled in Kolirin's mind, he read the book "My Drive to Israel," by Egyptian author and playwright Ali Salem, based on Salem's visit after the Oslo Accords were signed. "Salem drove here in his car, and because he was nervous, instead of Tel Aviv, he ended up in Netanya and had to spend the night there. In the book he describes all kinds of little things that happened to him that night. Nothing important, but small incidents with a great deal of charm," says the director.
"And then I began to wonder where the Friday-afternoon Arab movies on TV had gone, and the Arab music that the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) orchestra always used to play afterward. To me, that seemed connected to Israel's Westernization, capitalism, to the exclusion of Arab culture from Israeli culture. We have moved on to consume Hollywood and Europe instead of Egypt. Obviously this also happens in the neighboring Arab countries. We all lose ourselves to the Western world. 'The Band's Visit' for me is a reminder of this connection, which existed here once, but the moment they opened the media market to a few more channels, we lost it."
Kolirin recalls the Cannes Festival with pleasure, including his roar of joy when the film was accepted, the screening in the theater there ("You see the film as God intended it to be seen"), the festive cocktail party - also attended by luminaries Aki Kaurismaki, Atom Egoyan, and Ethan and Joel Coen - and the excitement of the first screening of "The Band's Visit" for an audience. "From my point of view," he explains, "the film has a touch of sadness, but the audience laughed. People came out optimistic. That was strange."
However, at some point in the festival, Kolirin says he felt a little like Tawfiq, the commander of the Egyptian police band in the film (played by Sasson Gabai). Tawfiq knows that the band is about to be shut down, understands that economic considerations will decide its fate and, to his distress, he has to watch the commercialization of the art. Kolirin says that at Cannes, after the distribution companies started vying for the purchase of the film, he experienced a crisis.
"All of a sudden they started talking to me only about money. I was dealing with the development of a cinematic language, purifying and completing it, and suddenly they're talking to me about sales, asking who the film has been sold to and for how much. I felt like a salesman. I had guilt feelings, as if I had done something wrong. After it was sold, I said to Merav, my wife, that now they look at the film like a doll that has been sold to the whole world - not like a film. But then came the good reviews and the prizes, and I had nothing to complain about. I had to keep quiet."