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Film

One-To-One Diplomacy

By Eve M. Ferguson
Published June 9, 2008

Eran Kolirin’s debut film The Band’s Visit has enjoyed widespread appeal, irrespective of whether one keeps up with the latest developments in Arab-Israeli relations. New York-born Israeli director Eytan Fox’s 2004 film Walk On Water, released on DVD in 2005 and worth revisiting here, shows a different side of Israeli relations as they unfold both within the country and beyond its borders.

The Band's Visit

At first blush, this subtle yet deliberate film appears on the surface to be a light and humorous tale about an Egyptian police band that, due to a lack of understanding of the Hebrew language, becomes lost in the desert. But as deeper layers of meaning reveal themselves, it’s clear that Kolirin has chosen to address the concept of peace—not the fragile peace of sweeping international agreements, but the smaller (and more intimate) person-to-person version, which erases the myth of the insurmountable gulf between close neighbors. Keeping in mind that nearly half of Israel’s small population is Arabic, The Band’s Visit points out that there are more similarities between Arabs and Israelis than there are differences.

The story starts when the small Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band lands in Israel armed only with a piece of paper naming the town where they are scheduled to perform for the opening of an Arab cultural center. When it becomes obvious that their anticipated ride is not going to show, Haled, the young and reckless playboy of the band (played by Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri), is given the task of finding a bus to their destination. Under the hawk-like gaze of the bandleader Tewfiq (played by Sasson Gabai, one of Israel’s most popular actors), Haled is constantly reprimanded for his roving eye and lack of dedication to the band. Predictably, his amorous overtures to the woman behind the ticket counter contribute directly to the band’s misfortunes by mispronouncing the name of the destination, Haled ends up leading his comrades to the isolated town of Beit Hatikvah, where it becomes obvious that they have seriously lost their way.

The band’s plight is mirrored in the surroundings Beit Hatikvah is a town of lost people hanging out at one of the two local restaurants. Dina, the proprietor (played by Ronit Elkabetz, another famous Israeli thespian), is a single woman living alone in a desolate community. Itzik (Rubi Moscovich), another of the restaurant’s patrons, is unemployed and uses the restaurant to escape the shame of not being able to provide for his new family. Papi, a hippy-type loafer, is socially inept. When the band arrives in town, they immediately draw the attention and curiosity of the residents.

Reluctant to ask for help, Tewfiq finally acknowledges the situation his men are in when they petition for food before trying to solve the larger problem of getting back on the road. Dina assures them that no bus will come through before the following morning, and makes arrangements to put them up for the night. As the quiet and gentle story unfolds, the viewer learns about Dina’s loneliness, Tewfiq’s private heartache, Papi’s inability to relate to the opposite sex, and Itzik’s depression and sense of failure. In these small interactions, the Arab men and Israeli residents find common ground. The bleak backdrop for the film only serves to focus the director’s lens on the relationships that emerge.

When the band finally moves on to its real destination of Petah Tikvah, new friendships have been forged, and emotional wounds have been healed while others were opened. Amidst the recitation of poetry and the playing of hauntingly beautiful Egyptian classical music—the band’s specialty—the characters convey a deeply human understanding of the trials and joys of life.

It’s no small wonder that The Band’s Visit has garnered more than a dozen awards at international fi lm festivals, and was given a 15-minute standing ovation at Cannes. With Israel celebrating 60 years of survival in a desert fi lled with hostile neighbors, this tender account of humanity demonstrates that<