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When is a film too English for its own good?

Israel's lauded 'Band's Visit' is ineligible as a foreign-language entry for Oscars, Globes.

December 02, 2007|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

Put yourself in writer-director Eran Kolirin's shoes. Your first feature-length, theatrical movie is receiving raves at film festivals around the world; critics applaud how it speaks with understated eloquence to the political realities of Israeli-Arab relations while noting how it also is infused with enough wise humor to make audiences nod and smile. And yet, the biggest controversy dogging your film is how much English dialogue it contains?

In recent weeks, Kolirin's small-budget indie film "The Band's Visit" has garnered headlines around the world for reasons that the 34-year-old Israeli filmmaker never envisioned when he set out to make a fictional story about a ceremonial Egyptian police band that winds up stranded for 24 hours in a dusty Israeli town.

"The Band's Visit" has been ruled ineligible to compete in the foreign-language film category by both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which governs the Oscars, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which oversees the Golden Globes, because more than half the film's dialogue is in English. Academy rules, for instance, hold that for films to qualify in that category, their dialogue must be "predominantly in a non-English language."

"I really stopped caring" about the controversy, Kolirin said, his engaging smile collapsing into a quizzical look during a recent interview at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Beverly Hills. "You know, you make a film, you make it with your heart, and then it's like someone with some kind of geometrical scale is coming and making some measurements . . . and it has nothing even remotely to do with the thing I did."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, December 05, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Band's Visit": An article in Sunday's Calendar section about the Israeli film "The Band's Visit" misspelled the last name of director Eran Kolirin in some passages as Kilorin.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, December 09, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Band's Visit": An article last Sunday about the Israeli film "The Band's Visit" misspelled the last name of director Eran Kolirin in some places as Kilorin.

Mike Goodridge, vice president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., said there was "much wringing of hands" among the 20 or so association members who grappled with the decision to exclude the film from the foreign-language category at the Golden Globes. He said it was clear that the Hebrew and Arabic spoken in the film did not constitute more than 50% of the dialogue.

"We thought of using a stopwatch [to calculate the percentage], but you just have to watch it to realize that most of it is in English," Goodridge said. "It's just one of these really awkward situations. Clearly, it's a foreign film, but the rules are the rules . . . . If you make an exception for one, you have to start bending the rules for everyone."

Kolirin compares the dispute to a songwriter's lyrics and somebody complaining: "Look, we read your song and it consists of three verbs and one adjective."

"You would say to them, 'Yes, you're right, but you're not understanding the song,' " Kolirin said. "Is this the correct way of evaluating a song? I don't know. It's strange."

The film, which swept the Israel Film Awards this year and picked up prizes at Cannes and Tokyo as well as at smaller film festivals, opens Friday at Laemmle's Music Hall in Beverly Hills and in New York for one week to qualify for awards consideration -- in almost every category. Sony Pictures Classics plans a wider rollout for the movie Feb. 8.

Although the film is about an Egyptian police band, Kilorin used Israeli Arabs as the band members because, the director said, political realities would have made it impossible to hire an Egyptian cast. He noted that he had heard an account of an Egyptian actor who had worked on a BBC project in either Algeria or Morocco who returned home and was boycotted for Egyptian roles because he had acted side by side with an Israeli actor.

Although he doesn't see the movie as a political film, Kolirin does admit it conveys a political message that addresses the cultural divide between Arabs and Jews in Israel. He noted that when he was growing up in Israel, he and his grandmother would often watch Egyptian soap operas on Israeli TV.

"That's something that has been kind of lost in the modernized, privatized, big media market," he said. "For me, Arab culture was inside our houses . . . . Now, my wife's cousins, they all know Spanish because Spanish soap operas are very big in Israel right now. Why have we stopped buying our soap operas from Egypt and started buying our soap operas from Spain? It's a political question."

[In a written statement promoting the film, Kilorin noted that when a new airport was built in Israel, they forgot to translate the road signs into Arabic, and that among the thousands of shops they built there, "they found no room for the strange, curling script that is the mother tongue of half our population."]

Kilorin said the story struck a chord with many Israelis because Israel remains a country questioning whether it is Western or Middle Eastern.

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