Separating the Truth From Fiction

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

Why, Eran Kolirin wants to know, are Americans so literal-minded?

During a stop in Washington while crisscrossing the United States in support of his first film, the Israeli writer-director of "The Band's Visit" says he keeps hearing one annoying question over and over. Did the story of a group of Arab musicians lost in Israel, and the ensuing culture clash, really happen?

He shouldn't be entirely surprised. After all, the dramatic comedy begins with this on-screen title: "Once -- not long ago -- a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this. It wasn't that important."

To his mind, those words are an obvious winking allusion to "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . . " Nobody asks George Lucas if "Star Wars" really happened.

So Kolirin doesn't entirely understand the obsession some American audiences have shown over such trivia as whether the members of the band in question would actually wear the goofy uniforms that they're seen in (and that make them stick out like powder-blue toy soldiers against the dusty Israeli desert).

"What's true," he says, "is that everywhere police orchestras wear ridiculous uniforms. This is a fact of life. If it's blue, ridiculous; brown, ridiculous; red, ridiculous -- I don't care." The costuming is, in short, an aesthetic choice, not one born of historical accuracy. "I'm sorry for the cliche," Kolirin adds, "but I believe that research is taking you away from the truth, and not into the truth."

If he's trying to get at anything, it's a truth that has less to do with what is seen on screen and more to do with what is felt. Of the rapprochement that gradually grows between the off-course Egyptians and the initially wary Israelis who take them in, Kolirin says that what connects them is not, as some reviewers have written, the metaphor of music as a universal language. (That's another assumption that drives him batty.) Rather, it's the feeling of loneliness shared by his protagonists that is the real universal language. "Everyone is a little bit lonely," he says. "Everyone is a little bit lost."

It's a theme underscored by what the 34-year-old director calls his "minimalist" style, characterized by frequent, all-but-motionless shots that at times evoke still photography more than cinematography. Yet while he readily admits the influence of such masters of the deadpan as directors Jim Jarmusch ("Broken Flowers") and Aki Kaurismaki ("The Man Without a Past"), Kolirin is quick to note another, less apparent inspiration.

"For me, I think, it also comes a lot from comic books."

It may sound strange, but Kolirin attributes his strong sense of visual composition to a steady childhood diet of "Spider-Man" and other illustrated adventure tales. "When I was growing up," he says, "it was hard to get the American ones, although in Tel Aviv you would get them in certain shops."

Such unexpected source material could explain some of the film's surreal blend of the silly and the serious. One scene features the youngest of the Egyptian musicians reciting Sufi love poetry to an uncomprehending Israeli audience sitting in a roller-skating rink. But a lot of what Kolirin calls the film's real music -- "a harmony between very low tones and very high tones" -- is just a reflection of who he is. "I'm not the kind of person that would speak to you only so seriously about things," he says. "I would have a smile somewhere. It's my way of talking about things."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company