February 10, 2008|Eran Kolirin strikes a modest figure. Maybe it was the illness: exhausted from a cross-country junket to promote the stateside release of his ebullient and in many ways extraordinary feature debut The Band's Visit (and sick besides), Mr. Kolirin met with me at Cherry Creek's Zaidy's Restaurant--home to the best matzo ball soup in Denver--over a bowl of what he referred to as a little Jewish remedy for the bug he'd been fighting on his tour. As we ate, I realized that what preparatory notes I'd made were all but useless. Though The Band's Visit is almost the definition of a political film (Israelis and Egyptians, oh my), Mr. Kolirin steadfastly avoided a discussion of his new role as focal point for the Middle East conversation--and when I asked him who he was rooting for in the upcoming American election (this was the day after Super Tuesday in the U.S. and I was fresh from listening to an NPR report on how Israel and Egypt were viewing the festivities), he said, "I don't have any idea." I began to wonder if this reticence wasn't more reluctance than indifference: as an aside, almost, at one pointed he volunteered that "Bush, yes, is quite fucked up."
So if not politics, what to talk about, then? For the most part, we stuck to the movie. But here and again, as he began to relax and meet my eye, as we sopped up our soup with some buttered rye, we'd break through to something close to the heart of Mr. Kolirin, who--more so than a lot of people I've met on the verge of becoming a big deal--actually seems to be on the verge of becoming a big deal. I was glad to have had this opportunity to catch an artist in ascendance.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: How do you carry the burden to be perceived as having some special insight into the struggles of the world?
ERAN KOLIRIN: Well, I think they only really listen to me in the context of the movie. (laughs) I'm really not asked a lot of general questions about the world, you know, about Israel and Egypt. If I were, I wouldn't have that much to say. I'm not a philosopher or a politician. I have a lot of thoughts and questions, you know. But I don't have any answers.
The ones with answers are the dangerous ones.
(laughs) Yes. They're the ones that I'm suspicious about. In film, too, the directors that know everything are the dangerous ones.
Any thoughts on the irony of your film, a film about acceptance, being the centre of so much intolerance in the Arab world?
The truth is that it's not really anything to do with the film at all, not what the film is about--it's just the fact of the movie. It's an Israeli film and Israeli films can't be shown in Egypt. Whether it's gentle or harsh, whether it's right or left, it really has no connection to my film. That's in Cairo. In Abu Dhabi it was different. It was accepted and we were going to show it and I was so happy about it. And then in the last moments, it was pulled out. They said that they were getting pressure from the Egyptians, that they would pull out if the film was shown. I don't know. I was excited, but in the end I had to remind myself that it's not really my business.
What is your business?
Well, it's to make my film as well and as truly as I can and to let the politicians politick, and the critics critique, and the audiences respond.
Same attitude towards the Oscar snub?
Yes. Honestly, I think I would be a lot more bitter about it, about these regulations and these people who do things that I don't really understand--but what can you do? If the film hadn't already received so much recognition in the rest of the world I would be more upset, but I'm satisfied that people will see the film. It's gotten a lot of praise everywhere we've gone with it and we've gone everywhere: Japan to Venice to Cannes to America to Canada. Even in the Arab states--they have the Internet--the people who want to see it have seen it. I've been reading, even, a lot of reviews from the Arab world. It's the wonderful thing about modernization: that if you want to have a dialogue, it's possible.
Do you see film as a great diplomat? As a bulldozer of walls?
I don't know. Do you think so?
I think film is by its nature political.
Yes. My film is political for me as well. It has a political subject. It is political as an object. It's about cultural communication, about the assimilation of Jews in the region. There's a schizophrenia in Israel, you know, it's a split existence because on the one hand there's this very real, heartfelt longing to belong to that region and on the other hand there's this tendency to wall everything off and draw lines, to separate ourselves. The whole country and region is in constant turmoil between these tendencies. These are all political questions. There's no way that my film could be seen as apolitical. But there's a chance to make a film that's political that sees these things all around us without sacrificing its essential personal nature.
You tell the story of how as a child you watched Egyptian films and you have the character of Dina recount the same story in the film... You must to some degree see film as a diplomat.
That scene in the park, when Tewfiq tells of his struggles with his son? The great tragedy? It's a very typical Egyptian plot from the movies that I used to watch when I was a young boy. This generational collision--the strict father, the wayward boy--it's a good moment in the film, but there's this smile underneath it, too. It's kind of nostalgic for me, this inside joke.
Anything to do with your dedication of the film to your late grandmother?
Yes. You know, I used to watch all those old movies with my grandmother in her little apartment in the roof in an apartment house in Tel Aviv. I can't think of that time in my life without thinking of us there watching the Egyptian films and then, when they were gone, she's the one that asked the question of why we couldn't watch them anymore. They were her favourite. A lot of the sadness in this movie--the feeling of loss--is a testament to my feelings of having lost her. I love her and I miss her and this film couldn't be like whatever it is without her love and my loss. I miss her.
|The titular visiting band|
Nostalgia is a good word for that hard to define quality to your movie.
Yes. I've been surprised that people can get that. It's certainly what I felt while I was making it. I think that in general I'm a sad person. I look back a lot. I'm a very nostalgic person, I guess is the better word for it. In a good way, though. I'm sentimental. I don't understand reviews of my movie that say that it's not sentimental. It is sentimental. There's nothing wrong with sentimental. I don't understand why it's so very desirable to be without sentiment. I hope not in a vulgar, cheap way, of course but sentimental? Yes, of course.
Can you pull out from this and from your film the idea of "longing"?
I'm reminded of this old Rabbi who was writing a couple of hundred years ago. I can't say it well in English, but essentially he makes this distinction between an idea of like "depression" and of "sadness" that the one is just selfish, just all about yourself where the other--the other, it's possible to be about the world. To feel empathy with the world and to feel that sadness. So "longing" or "melancholy"--I'm very happy if you see that in my movie and see the difference between a movie that is just sad and a movie that is very much about the feeling in the world of nostalgia or whatever you call that: longing, melancholy.
You've said that you were surprised that people laughed during this film. Why do you think that they do?
I think that you might have a better insight in this than I do. You know, I thought it was funny. I thought it was maybe more a smile movie than a laugh-out-loud one, though. But thinking about it, I laughed out loud many times while I was shooting it. The whole beginning, when we first finished it and I showed it to just a few people, the feedback was that it was too dour, too serious you know. But I remember a lot of those scenes--with the big yellow ball, the one with the janitor while they're taking a picture--I laughed a lot. I never really expected, though, that anyone else would think that it's funny.
Could it be that recognition that makes it funny?
Yeah, maybe, maybe. The recognition that everyone's full of the same crap (laughs), the same awkwardness, the same stuff that makes them what they are.
Is the scene where Dina puts her bare foot on the table a flaunting of Arab oppression of women? Of the West's developmental superiority owing at least in part to our allowing a full half of our population the freedom to participate in our modernization?
(laughs) Too much. Too much. I don't know. This is your perspective, I don't know. I know that there wasn't anything intended like that but then we just talked about how there are giant political associations with the tiniest personal association, always it seems like, so... So I don't know. I certainly don't think that Dina is making any kind of conscious statement by that. Some cultures are very open to that, others much less accustomed to that. I wrote that scene as just this woman, not trying to seduce anyone, managing to awaken something in this older man and this younger man. I remember a friend of mine went to India and told me this very exciting story about how this one beautiful girl came to him barefoot! It's not just an Arab thing, not at all, I think it'd be strange for me, too, if a pretty girl puts a bare foot up on a table in front of me. It's just one of those things.
Music: let's start with "My Funny Valentine" and its theme of acceptance.
That's funny, you know, because though music is important in the film, I don't have any particular connection with that song. In some places in the movie I wanted to highlight Egyptian music, in others Israeli, and there are parts in the film that I use Cole Porter or Chet Baker. But for me that song is representative of escape. The character of Khaled desires to run away from his reality, you know, and the best way that he can do it is in these romantic standards.
These American standards.
(laughs) That's just Khaled. You see Tewfiq offering the saner option. That even though he has a background, obviously, in a very regimented classical musical training, he also has the complete collection of Chet Baker's work. He doesn't play it--he has his own language, but he can appreciate good art without judgment of generation or physical borders. He respects the possibility of just losing yourself.
Talk to me about the idea of music transcending boundaries.
For me it was more that music was the thing that all the characters were reaching for. It was representative of something there that they couldn't touch, couldn't speak, couldn't find the voice for there is music. When you can't describe your loss any more, you go to music. You can imagine music when you're lost. For me, music in the movie is the thing that all the characters yearn for so that they can complete themselves.
The scene in the shish kebob restaurant, talking about how the world has changed and the music of it, with it.
This is the heart of the movie, this scene, I think. There's something very important here. It's all a negotiation of giving and taking on a literal level, the literal equation; but there's the emotional equation, the emotional language that isn't spoken in words but in the combination of these two together. What is the police orchestra, anyway? It's this entity that brings a touch of art into the middle of the most artless gatherings. It's policemen playing instruments and making music instead of maintaining rigid order. It's really this combination of the high and the low, you know. The worker and the artist as the same thing. I think it's dangerous to hold the two at arm's length to each other--they are both parts of the same.
So, then, what is the role of the artist in the world? Start with you.
(laughs) Oh, geez, wow. I don't know that I can call myself an artist. That seems a dangerous, arrogant thing. Tewfiq, though, on the other hand--he represents something to me that I wish to be. He's a worker in music. He wakes up in the morning and he goes and does music. He works in music. He's a throwback. A blue-collar working person. His job is music. He's something that you maybe can no longer be because the world has changed. In Hebrew, the term for art is very close to this idea of a, how do you say it, a carpenter, a skilled craftsman? Yes?
Like "art" and "artisan"?
Yes, yes, maybe, maybe. It's like Mozart, like Bach, they were working for some rich man, some royalty, they would say compose this Mass and they would go off and make genius--or like in Hollywood where you work in formula, maybe. There's this mythology of the artist that he lives in the clouds and divinity comes to him and then this mythology that the working person does only that with no thought to art at all. What I see and aspire to and tried to represent in this character of Tewfiq is someone who has found not only his spirit in this making of art, but his livelihood as a craftsman to create this art. He exists in both worlds and so your question about the role of the artist; the answer is that the role of the artist is the same as the role of anybody. Work. Toil. And from that work and toil there is product. And small, but very satisfying, rewards.