Monday, 7 July 2008

The Band's Visit

Lowdown: An esoteric Egyptian band is stuck in the middle of nowhere, Israel.
It wasn’t like our TV sat idle, but for more than a couple of weeks we didn’t indulge ourselves with a proper film. Blame the Euro, but I definitely started developing withdrawal symptoms. Thus, weary and tired after a long day, we forced ourselves to sit in front of our favorite TV and watch ourselves a film. Luckily for us, the film we chose to watch – The Band’s Visit (TBV), an Israeli film first released in 2007 – turned out to be an excellent choice to break the fast with.
TBV follows the events taking place on the day and night following the arrival of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra into Israel. The band arrives at Tel Aviv’s airport with much pomp but quickly has to resort to improvisations when left to their own devices with no one to greet them. Eventually, they decide on taking the bus to their destination, but when they finally arrive at their destination they discover it is a rather god forsaken middle of nowhere desert town. Being that by then they’re hungry, they stop to eat at a simple workers’ restaurant, where they learn they got their destination wrong and that there will be no other buses in town till tomorrow. Being that there are no hotels in town, the female owner of the restaurant and a couple of the bums that frequent it host the various band members for the night. The bulk of the film follows up on the events taking place that night as Israelis and Egyptians open up to one another.
With its lyrical and slow approach, I found TBV to be a very touching film. By touching I mean that it touches many issues and handles them well despite their inherent fragility. Unlike its more commercial cinematic relatives (allow me to point the finger at mainstream Hollywood), it doesn’t attempt to solve the world’s problems and it doesn’t offer quick solutions that would leave everybody happy. Instead, TBV works by touching one’s emotions and one’s thoughts.
One of the core issues touched by TBV is the relationship between Egypt and Israel. Although a peace agreement between the countries has been signed back in 1976, the relationship is best described as cold; at least at the time I left Israel the prevailing notion was that you don’t go to visit Egypt unless you’re looking for trouble. On the other side, a lot of nasty anti Israeli statements were made by prominent Egyptian characters, and these didn’t really serve to negate the cold. At the personal level, I am ashamed to say I failed to use the opportunity to hop on a bus and see what Egypt is like for myself as it is clear there is a lot to be learned from Egyptian culture. I may have not liked the place much, but surely the experience would have been unique, an eye opener. Back to TBV, the film capitalizes on the suspicion that acts as a barrier between the two people, but then shows how meaningless that suspicion is when at both sides the people are very similar: they like the same things, they speak in similar languages (the film’s Israelis use a lot of Arabic in their speech), and they all face similar problems. That gulf that is there between the people of Egypt and the people of Israel is effectively converted into a metaphor for the gulfs that lie between people in general.
The metaphor is quickly put into use in the relationships between the characters, most of which are very well developed despite the film concentrating on a single day of their lives. The main conflict, for lack of a better word, is between the orchestra’s conductor and the restaurant owner. On one hand we have a pompous guy who takes the matter of managing of his ceremonial orchestra very seriously and conducts himself in a similar way: reserved and dignified yet truly sincere. On the other hand we have a divorced loner who craves having someone to pay attention to that would pay her some attention back. As the film progresses they open up to one another.
Then there’s the issue of life in the middle of nowhere, with everything that goes with living in the middle of nowhere: poor socio economics, high unemployment, rather miserable architecture that makes the poor feel even poorer, youth with nothing to do, and all the family fabric tension that come with that. While the Israeli desert provides a very suitable environment for TBV's presentation, the problem is not unique to Israel but is rather shared by secluded towns everywhere (especially in Australia).
TBV reserves a special place for music. The orchestra at hand, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, is facing budget issues: because a police service does not really need an orchestra in order to police, our orchestra is in a fight for its life. It has to prove its vitality, and its misadventures in Israel are not really contributing its cause. Thus the orchestra and its music serve as a metaphor to everything that we don’t have to have but which lights up our lives, all the stuff we are happy to give up on just to have a few more dollars in our pockets as we mourn the loss of flavor to our lives. Again, I was touched at the personal level, because music is one of those things I seem to have abandoned as life’s struggles become tougher and tougher. There used to be a time when listening to music would be my dominant pastime (and I’m not talking about listening to music while doing something else; I’m talking about fully concentrating on the listening). Most of my resources were spent on making the most of that experience. Now I can hardly afford the time to listen, and when I do it’s usually through some MP3 with all life compressed out of it and through poor PC quality speakers. But from time to time there are those moments when I turn the hi-fi, raise the volume on the amp to where it should be, and click play; and those short moments are worth all the grunge that comes in between.
Worth special mentioning are TBV’s cinematography and the acting. The placement of the characters in the bleak and lonely desert is quite effective, and the actors (including several names that would be familiar to Israelis and Arabs) do a truly fine job at portraying their rather reserved yet tormented characters.
Best scene: An Israeli bum who doesn’t know how to hit it off with a girl gets a lesson from an Egyptian expert. The thing about the scene is the way it’s directed: all three are sitting next to one another on a stool, filling up the frame. Communication is limited to pantomimes, and everything is rendered rather surreal.
Overall: TBV is a hidden gem well worth watching. At the personal level, it made me want to pay Alexandria a visit: I could visit the place where the fabled library used to be, and I might even try to catch the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra live.
I would say TBV is a 4 star film, but I liked it so much I will give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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