Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Band's Visit

I caught up with the charming movie, The Band's Visit, the other day.   It's an Israeli-made film, but its focus is on a number of Egyptian characters, the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, who find themselves lost, and somewhat at sea, in a little Israeli town they've arrived at by mistake.   A confusion over the sounds, P and B, hasn't helped.   The Orchestra, with its odd combination of instruments, seems unlikely to make much of an impact on anyone or anything, since it consists of so few people - eight or nine in all.  And during the course of the movie, when we hear one or two of them playing (the clarinettist, for instance, who presents the page or so of his unfinished concerto, and the trumpet player - who also doubles on the violin) we think they're not going to impress anyone.   But at the end of the movie, they come together for their concert (in the right town) and are superb.  They need each other to perform their best.

Sasson Gabai
The film, while it's about music and its effect on people, is more focused on relationships.  It doesn't primarily set out to tell us we should all love one another, and that Israelis and Arabs should just get along, though it does achieve this as a by-product.  It's about resolving things from your past, and being honest and open.  In other words, it's a film about real - and delightful - people.  The 'messages' come naturally with the content of the story.

The casting is superb.  The orchestra's conductor is played by Sasson Gabai, who was born in Baghdad of Israeli-Iraqi parents.   He's a withdrawn person who finds it difficult to communicate directly with anyone - though he does come alive when conducting, which is perhaps why he never lets his next-in-charge take over the role.   In the little town he meets Dina, the owner of a small cafe.  She's played with wonderful fire and life by Ronit Elkabetz.  Dina seldom minces matters and her up-front honesty eventually breaks through to the conductor and allows him to tell her what little we need to know about him to understand him.

The youngest member of the band, the trumpet/violin player, Khaled, is played by Saleh Bakri, a Palestinian who was born in Jaffa, and now lives in Haifa.   He seems to be out of place in this group of middle-aged and older men, and certainly he gets under the skin of the conductor more than a little.  However, he's the one who is prepared to make the most of life, and who can encourage others to do so.  In one of the film's most delightful scenes he shows an unconfident and scruffy young Israeli how to court the woman he's been landed with in a blind date.  The interplay between the three actors has to be seen to appreciate the subtleties and humour.

The film doesn't just show everyone as being happy about the situation.  One of the unemployed young men who hangs out at Rena's cafe takes three of the bandsmen home with him, much to the annoyance of his wife and her mother.  They remain intransigently opposed to these visitors, undercutting the Jewish ideals of hospitality in no small measure.  Only the young man and his father-in-law respond positively to the three bandsmen.  In a later scene we discover that the young man is the father of a baby, who's sleeping in a cot in his room.  We don't know whether this is why his wife is at such odds with him, or whether it's because he can't find a job, or whether it's because they're stuck in this awful town  - and it is awful: Rena shows the conductor the 'park.'  It has no grass, no children's play equipment, nothing.  The streets are bare, and the landscape barer.  The roller-skating rink is half-empty, and even those who are there seem lacking in much energy.

But this gloomier section of the movie can't undermine the joy that's apparent in much of the rest of it.

Apropos of my comment about the mix-up over P and B in Arabic and Israeli, in the last two or three weeks my wife and I have been learning Arabic.  (There's a reason, but I won't go into that at the moment.)  Pizza is bizza in Arabic, and potatoes are bitatis, so we were already aware of this confusion when we saw the movie.  In fact we got the movie out of the Library in part because it was in Arabic and we wanted to hear people speaking the language.  As it turned out, of course, it's only partly in Arabic.  The Jews speak Israeli, and when the Arabs and Jews speak to each other they mostly use English!

I was thinking about this because of the brand name, Vater Drums, which I came across today.  Vater is the German word for Father, and in German/English there are a number of corresponding words that are virtually identical apart from the F/V substitution.  Years ago I did a course in England that showed how many words had connections between the two languages.  Unfortunately someone borrowed the notes I'd been sent by the person who wrote the course, and I never saw them again.  And so far I haven't found anything similar on the Net.

Vater percussion accessories are big time, apparently, though not to me.  Although I've been around percussion players and drummers a good deal over the years, I've never paid much attention to the brand names on their instruments, although I know that these instrumentalists are very aware of the better brands.  Vater produce accessories for drums: the sticks, the mallets, brushes, etc, rather than the drums themselves.  And they make the holders as well, along with holders for the all-important drink bottle!

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