Monday, January 18, 2010

"The Band's Visit": Reflections

Here's what I enjoy the most about good songwriting, poetry, fiction, plays, and movies: particularity.

For me, lyrics, poetry, fiction, plays, and movies work best when they focus on a particular world in a particular point in time and explore what particularly happens (or, since these are works of the imagination, might happen).

Last night, I watched "The Band's Visit", an movie made in Israel by an Israeli director, Eran Kolirin. The movie is very particular. It focuses on a twenty-four hour time period. It explores one situation: because of a misunderstanding, the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra takes a bus ride to a remote Israeli town, the wrong town, and is stranded for the night. It's an Egyptian/Arab group of musicians in an Israeli/Jewish town.

If you'd like to see what transpires, I recommend the movie. Let me just say it's very positive. It's deeply humane.

And it's also very particular.

I bring this up because I do not see the movie trying to offer remedy for the tensions between Arabs and Israelis (and Palestinians, for that matter). Although the making of the movie brought Israeli, Arab, and Palestinian actors and technical artists together, I didn't see the movie as a political parable.

That's why I enjoyed the movie so much.

The leader of the police band, played by
Sasson Gabai, was not portrayed as an Egyptian/Arab everyman. He was portrayed as a highly individualized, very particularized character, a man whose deep sense of dignity and decorum was augmented by great personal suffering and further augmented by his deep love of music. He's complicated. He's not a type.

Likewise, there is nothing sterotypically Arab or Egyptian about the other band members. Kolirin portrays them as particular men, some whom we get to know better than others, but these are individualized characters. We know they are Egyptian, and that matters, but not in a way that makes them representative of Egypt as a whole.

It's the same with the Israeli characters, especially Dina, as played by the remarkable Ronit Elkabetz.

My point is that what transpires in the movie cannot be understood as anything but how these particular characters in this particular town at this particular time responded to each other.

Dina is not portrayed as some kind of a national peace maker. She's lonely. She's vivacious. She's generous. She offers hospitality. Her generosity grows out of the particular character she is, and I didn't sense that the movie was saying anything about her embodying a solution to Israeli/Arab tensions.

In this town, at this time, in this situation, as the character she is, she offered help. And what develops when the band accepts her help is particular to the movie's story. I do not see it pointing very far beyond itself.

It's what happens, I think, when a situation we are conditioned to think of only in political terms is dealt with poetically.

It's not exactly unnerving, but it does force us to see that we think of life in the Middle East in very limited, albeit important, ways.

A poet/storyteller/film director like Eran Kolirin is not, in my view, making a movie with a message. He's creating a situation, a very particular situation and exploring how these particular characters respond.

The focus is not political or ideological or general, but human, humane, and particular.

When the band finds its way back to where they were supposed to go, I didn't think something like, "Now if Israelis and Arabs would only be like that with each other, the problems in that region would no longer exist."


The tensions in Israel and the Middle East are systemic and historical. They aren't personal. People in individual situations being good to each other won't solve the deeper problems. Such personal goodness is admirable and should be aspired to, but it's not a solution.

This was a personal movie, a particular story. It portrayed particular goodness, but did not portray a general solution.

I loved it for that.

No comments: