'Visit' not foreign enough for Oscars, Globes

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Foreign film: When is a foreign film not a foreign film? The answer, apparently, is when the Academy says it's not.

In the case of "The Band's Visit," opening Friday via Sony Pictures Classics for a one-week Oscar qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles (prior to its Feb. 8 opening), the fact that too much of the Israeli comedy drama's dialogue is in English was enough to prompt the Academy to bar it from the foreign film category although it certainly looks foreign and sounds foreign even when they're speaking English.

As a result, Israel had to withdraw "Visit" and submit another official entry. Subsequently, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. also ruled that "Visit" has too much English to compete in the Golden Globes as a foreign language film. The rulings are unfortunate because this small beautifully made movie from Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin has been praised for its "Chaplinesque" qualities since winning the Coup de Coeur jury prize last May in the Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard program.

Produced by Eilon Ratzkovsky, Ehud Bleiberg, Yossi Uzrad, Koby Gal-Raday and Guy Jacoel, "Visit" is a July-August Prods. (Israel), Bleiberg Entertainment (USA) and Sophie Dulac Prods. (France) production. Starring are Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri and Khalifa Natour.

Last Saturday Sasson Gabai's performance in "Visit" brought him a surprise best actor win in the European Film Awards, beating such favorites as James McAvoy for "The Last King of Scotland" and Ben Whishaw for "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer." Gabai's win helped elevate "Visit's" profile just as the American awards season is starting to heat up. "Visit" also swept this year's Israeli Film Academy awards, winning best film, director, screenplay, actor (Gabai), actress (Elkabetz), supporting actor (Bakri), costumes (Doron Ashkenazi) and music (Babib Shadah).

The "Visit" referred to in the title is the arrival in Israel of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center there. Unfortunately, when the band members, wearing their crisp blue dress uniforms, get to the airport no one's there to greet them and help them travel to the Israeli town where they're scheduled to perform. Naturally, they get on the wrong bus and wind up in a remote dusty desert town where no one knows or cares what they're talking about when they ask for directions to the Arab Cultural Center.

One thing leads to another and the group, led by its very formal and strict conductor Tewfig (a terrific performance by Gabai), learns that it's stranded overnight. They have nowhere to sleep until the proprietor of the local cafe (the very spirited Elkabetz) invites them to split up and stay with her and some friends. Once they're eating and drinking and talking, they find they've got much more in common than anyone would ever have imagined.

It's all this talking, however, that posed problems for "Visit" because so much of it is done in English. Actually, it's the kind of abbreviated semi-grammatical English that people improvise when they need to use a third language to communicate because neither side speaks the other's native tongue. In such circumstances English is the perfect solution because people all over the world have learned in school to speak it to some extent.

After enjoying an early look at "Visit" I was happy to have an opportunity to ask Eran Kolirin about making the movie and, especially, about how he feels about it being disqualified for best foreign language film consideration in the Oscars and Globes.

"The truth is that I feel very detached from all the decisions," Kolirin told me. "As far as the Oscar, I was a little angry for three or four days, but it went away really fast. Whenever you come across a big establishment with lots of rules and articles, you encounter strange decisions, but I have no really big problem (with it)."

Asked about the basis for the Academy's ruling being that too much English is spoken in "Visit," he replied, "I guess that if you check the movie with a stopwatch, then it doesn't comply with a certain regulation that they have. But I do think there is always the question of the idea behind any law or regulation (as to) what this rule or regulation was created for. I don't think that those regulations were created to rule out a movie like 'The Band's Visit.' And I don't think that anyone actually seeing 'The Band's Visit' could think that this is not a foreign film. The problem always with regulations and establishments is that the rules become bigger than the idea they were supposed to be representing."

Why did he use so much English in the film? "First of all, it's part of the tragedy that this movie's talking about," he explained. "Israel and Egypt, two close neighbors with very close languages, would converse 99.9% of the time if they meet in English because most Israelis do not speak proper Arabic and most Arab people around them do not speak Hebrew. It's just what happens -- that they speak together in English. This is what would happen if this was a real life case."

Years ago, French was considered the world's international language because it was spoken by diplomats from around the globe and, therefore, provided a means of communication for all. "I think English is the new international language," Kolirin said. "If you go on the Internet, you would speak to people around the world in English, the same way I'm speaking with you now in English. It's a very authentic part of the story of 'The Band's Visit' that these parties would talk to each other in English. It was never any kind of decision that was commercial. I never knew of any of those (Academy) regulations before."

Was there an opportunity to explain all this to the Academy before its ruling or, at least, to appeal its decision? "I know we tried -- not me personally, but the production tried to appeal," he noted. "I told them that we should say the silences in the movie are in Arabic. You know, it's very funny because the movie's 85 minutes and, if I'm not mistaken, it has 18 minutes in Arabic and Hebrew and 22 minutes in English and the rest is just images and silences. People don't really talk a lot in the movie. I think, also, the English, itself, for an English speaker would be very foreign English because it's very Israeli-Arabic broken English being spoken."

Although "Visit" isn't eligible in the foreign language category, it is eligible in all other races. Sometimes by not being in the foreign race, a film can get attention in other categories that it might not have received if it were competing in the more basic foreign film category. "I don't know," Kolirin said. "It's the first time in my life I'm even being considered in any (Oscar) category at all so I don't know -- maybe. If it turns out for the good, then okay."

As for how the idea to make the film came about, he told me, "The idea came from an image I had in my head of a man who was dressed in a police uniform, who's very strict and who opens his mouth and starts singing an Arabic song. This was the first image that came to me and the whole movie kind of evolved from this. This is really what I do. I write from a kind of fundamental image. I (believe) that this image has the whole film inside itself."

This was about seven years ago. "It took a long time to write it and rewrite it," he continued, "and to get the money. It cost $750,000. We got about half from the Israeli Film Fund and for the rest we (found other investors). There are a lot of names at the beginning of the movie. Every one we kind of persuaded to chip in a few (thousand dollars). To be honest, not many people really believed in this strange story to begin with. So we were just getting some (money) from this, some from that, a little from here -- and kind of got it all together. The main thing was to get it (approved by) the Israeli Film Fund. This took several years. After it got past (that hurdle) and had something substantial to work with, it took about two more years to get everyone else to join in."

Production started about two years ago: "We shot it in 23 days, which is very quick. But, maybe, it was also helpful and good to not have too much money. We had to be a little smarter. Most of it I shot in Yeruham, which is a small Israeli town in the Negave in the south of Israel. The beginning was about seven years ago (but) I wasn't working on this screenplay for seven years. I was working on and off. I did some other things (and) I was working for television. But overall it was seven years. It was the hardest screenplay I've ever done. It was a very strange idea to begin with and it didn't conform to people's expectations from the basic premise of the film.

"If I pitched the basic premise to people they would expect something completely (different) from the screenplay. I was continuously getting remarks about, 'It's not dramatic enough,' 'It does not address political questions directly' and (I got) a lot of advice such as, 'Why don't you put in some character whose brother was killed in some war?' So it took a lot of time to find (the money) and to say, 'No, this is the movie that I want to do.'"

When I asked him if while wearing his director's hat he was happy with the screenplay he'd written while wearing his writer's hat, Kolirin pointed out, "For me there's no such line between these two 'hats' that you're talking about. It's all basically the same. When I write, I think about the images and I think about the places and the locations and, vice versa, when I direct for me it's the same thing, actually."

Looking back at the biggest challenges he faced in production, he told me, "The story began with this man singing in a suit and I had this feeling that the whole movie should be like a man singing in a suit -- meaning that it would have a very strict cinematic language, but you could feel a kind of turmoil like a song that is beating underneath this more reserved cinematic language. This feeling was influenced for me by things like Jacques Tati films and very dry humor and on the other hand it was also influenced very much by a sense of Egyptian melodrama. These are completely opposite things, you know. Somehow to harmonize these things was the most challenging thing.

"For me, it's like you're a kid and you grew up on Egyptian melodrama and movies with big gestures and big stories and this is when you fell in love with cinema. And then you grow and you learn and you become this more articulate film director and you say, 'No, I will stand miles away with my camera. I'll be more impressionistic. I'm not telling a straight story.' Somewhere inside you, this kid is also kicking and saying, 'But I want to tell (the story more traditionally).' In this way it harmonized for me the stories of characters that are living a mediocre day to day life, but you have this feeling that there was another big life that was promised to them but they never really touched yet. It was kind of one theme for me, but to have it harmonized in the way that it would have those two levels of something very closed and strict outside and something very terrible inside was very hard to (achieve)."

Kolirin also had to contend with an unusual weather problem: "The first day (of shooting there) was a sandstorm. We had (the band members) getting off the bus in a horrible sandstorm. We didn't know how we would find the continuity to (make it work). It looked very nice, but we knew that we wouldn't have this weather all the time. That was the only (weather) problem."

Although the movie isn't opening in the U.S. until Feb. 8, it's already done nicely in Israel. "It played in Israel and has done very well," he said. "It started about a month ago. It cannot be formally released in Egypt due to political circumstances. I hope we can have some sort of screening inside Egypt, but probably it would not be a formal (showing)."

"Visit" was also well received in its screenings at key film festivals like Cannes, Telluride and Toronto. "We won three prizes in Cannes," he said. "We were playing in the Un Certain Regard (competition). We won the third prize of the category, the Coup de Coeur. We won also the international critics award in Cannes, the FIPRESCI, and we got the young audience prize. Cannes was really the start of what happened with this movie internationally because it suddenly just burst out. It will open in France in December and also in Germany in December. It's been sold all around the world by Bleiberg Entertainment."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From May 10, 1990's column: "At the same time that Hollywood is enjoying record setting boxoffice business, it's starting to encounter some potentially serious problems on the home video front.

"Studies by A.C. Nielsen Media Research showing a substantial decline in the number of monthly cassette rentals made front page news ... What Nielsen found is that in late 1986 there were approximately 34.3 million households with VCRs and an average of 3.26 movies being rented per month. Although the number of VCR households rose to approximately 59.5 million by mid-1989, the average rentals per month fell to 2.38. Lately, rentals are said to be down to just 2.07 per month.

"A number of possible reasons for the decline are being cited, including the novelty of VCR ownership having worn off; the fact that many people have by now seen the earlier blockbuster films they wanted to catch up with; and that the public has been buying millions of low-priced cassettes of movies that were recent theatrical blockbusters.

"Another factor that is likely to have contributed to the public's growing apathy for renting videos is what I call the inconvenience factor. We live in a fast-track world in which people don't have time to drive to video stores, browse around in the hopes of finding the hits they want to see, stand in line to check them out and then repeat the whole time consuming process to return them the next day. Low daily rental charges add up to a waste of money if something unexpected happens and people don't have time to view the videos they've gone to the trouble of renting.

"Although in its infancy video was regarded as a medium that would make a wide range of movies accessible to the public, it quickly turned into a hits only business. Hollywood in recent years helped to cultivate the public's taste for videos of only blockbuster films. At the same time, Hollywood perfected the sell-through technique of mass marketing popularly priced videos of hit movies.

"As a result, it's no wonder that rentals are sliding. With the public being conditioned to want only big hits that are just out of theaters, it's tough for many stores to stock enough rental cassettes to satisfy demand. There may be hundreds of other titles on the shelves, but if consumers can't rent the blockbuster they're looking for, they're going to leave unhappy. Unhappy customers, as a rule, don't come back..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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