Thanks to Anjali’s suggestion, the two of us went to see Bikur Ha-Tizmoret (The Band’s Visit) which opened the Portland International Film Festival’s 31st year last night. The Israeli director Eran Colirin was in attendance and he opened the movie by announcing how many drinks he had already had before getting on stage. He has had a career in Israeli television and Bikur Ha-Tizmoret is his debut film. Having lived in Egypt for a few years as a child, I was curious to see a film about an Egyptian police orchestra visiting Israel to perform at a cultural center.
None of this is real. Eran made it up. He created the idea of an Egyptian police orchestra playing classical Egyptian music like Oum Kalthoum because at football matches Eran wondered why all countries played the same “horrible, American military” music. “Why didn’t Jamaica play a reggae song, or Egypt an Oum Kalthoum song?” So the whole concept is made up, and it is scripted, acted, and directed to perfection. The orchestra is already stranded when we first see them, even if they haven’t realized it yet. The band ends up in an imaginary small Israeli desert town, and they have to make the best of it until the next morning.
Because of politics, none of the actors playing the Egyptians are actually Egyptian. Instead the soulful Sasson Gabai who plays the conductor Tawfiq is an Iraqi Jew. The uber-hottie, Chet Baker-obsessed, Haled is played by Saleh Bakri, son of Arab Israeli actor Mohammed Bakri. All of the Jewish and Palestinian actors portraying Egyptian police musicians had to learn the Egyptian Arabic dialect, since even the actors who spoke Arabic spoke other Arabic dialects. They all did masterful jobs, and had me thoroughly convinced that they were an Egyptian police orchestra, the type of which has never existed outside of Eran Colirin’s idealistic imagination. This imagination reaches an emotional climax in the film for me when Dina (fully embodied by Israeli actor Ronit Elkabetz), the cafe owner who looks over the stranded musicians asks Tawfiq, “Why does a police band play old Om Kalthoum songs,” and Tawfiq replies, “You may as well ask a man why he has a soul.” Boom. Sasson Gabai has the most achingly-soulful eyes, and a quietly magnetic presence.
Tawfiq’s final hand motion is the whole point of the film according to the director.
Film Center after-parties at the Portland Art Museum can be a hideous affair, as Anjali and I know from having DJed one in 2003. The sound in the sunken ballroom is awful. It is certainly up there with the worst Anjali and I have ever sounded, and to top if off, since we were bringing and loading in all our own equipment, including refrigerator-sized Cewin Vega speakers, Anjali and I got lazy and didn’t bring any turntables, records, or back-up CD player. So while I am onstage in front of hundreds of people the right side of my DJ CD deck eats a disk that gets wedged inside the machine behind the tray so that the tray won’t close. Great. I didn’t even have a single mix CD to play, so I put on a compilation with three second songs between tracks and hid behind the DJ booth in abject humiliation. It took Anjali an eternity to return with another CD player, and by that point the evening was totally ruined for me, if it hadn’t already been by how inescapably awful our music sounded due to the terrible acoustics of the room. The songs I knew and loved sounded horrible. If I had never heard Bollywood and bhangra music before, and I attended that event, I may well have decided it was the most ear-piercingly awful music ever.
At this year’s after-party Eran Colirin was stumbling around, and ended up shutting the party down, taking over the stage after Brothers of the Baladi and “singing” and “playing” guitar to a small and enthusiastically interactive audience including movie critic Shawn Levy on percussion. Far more bacchanalian than anything that occurred at Anjali and my performance at the PIFF all those years ago, so I have to give credit where credit is due. I can’t really comment on Brothers of the Baladi since they suffered from the same miserable acoustics that hampered us all those years ago. We at least had giant speakers, while Brothers of the Baladi were playing through a tiny 10″ or 12″ PA system that was farting, cracking and distorting from being overdriven. The percussion solos sounded nice, when the rest of the band wasn’t overpowering the PA system. This year at least a temporary dance floor was installed, and it worked, with many people actually dancing, as opposed to at our appearance, where people who tried to dance gamely shuffled their feet on thick carpet.
We made sure Eran (thanks Jamie Lee!) was slipped an Atlas flyer, so since he is in town through Sunday, we’re hoping he stops by to check out the party. Should be fun. Hope to see all of y’all in the Portland area up in there.
The following still is the beginning of one of the funnies scenes in the movie, set in a roller disco, consummately acted and directed to comedic perfection.
The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret) was Israel’s submission for the Oscar but was denied by reason of language for not being Israeli enough. According to Eran there were Oscar guys sitting with tally counters totaling how many English, Arabic, and Hebrew words were spoken by the characters in the movie. Eran said it didn’t worry him, that his job was to achieve truthfulness in his work, and someone else’s job to count words in a movie.