The film, The Band’s Visit (2007), can be interpreted and discussed on many different levels. Perhaps it is a political statement by the Israeli director and writer, Eran Kloirin. The halting dialogue and the often awkward silences can be a metaphor for the lack of meaningful dialog between Israel and her Arab neighbors. The desert outpost, in the middle of nowhere, which the Band finds itself, might signify Israel’s isolation. The Band’s neatly identical vivid blue uniforms seem so out of place against the desert sand. The Band is bewildered and so are we.
But for me, the movie was meaningful on a more personal level, regardless of politics. Three main contrasting characters were explored in this 87 minute film. Tewfig Zakaria is the strict, conservative commander of the Alexandria Ceremonial Orchestra. The scene in the airport when the Band poses for a photo and quite innocently a maintenance man unaware wheels in a trash can and broom, we know that Tewfig’s strict and unyielding command will be challenged. He portrayed someone so uncomfortable by the adverse situation of being lost and confused. I found myself completing his sentences that he was so painfully trying to complete. Tewfig was carrying so much guilt, so much sadness. You saw it the tight close-ups of his face. Haled, the irresponsible, flirting, defiant, handsome young man who got the wrong directions at the airport almost finds himself drummed out of the Band if he doesn’t begin to show discipline and restraint. This threat has little effect on him. Dina, the brash and extremely bored café owner who offers food and shelter to the eight members of the orchestra. Like Tewfig, she also has some regrets but unlike Tewfig, she lives for the present and not in the past. As we see, Tewfig and Dina find companionship and Tewfig talks about his private life, perhaps the first time since the suicide of his son. With all three characters sitting around the table during one of the final scene, and despite their tentative, sometimes tender exchanges, the three remain essentially alone, in isolation, as their faces project.
What are the constants that tie these characters and their situation together so that film is not just a bunch understated or unrelated scenes. Love, family, food, and music are the glue. The se idea of being in the wrong place at the wrong time hits home for me. I am an orchestra conductor and during my early career years, I found myself in many awkward and even dangerous situations. I saw myself as the ninth musician when the Band is dumped at the airport with their luggage and instruments.
I conducted in Russia on many occasions and though most of my host was kind and helpful, others were not se benevolent. I guest conducted in a small town somewhere in the middle of Russia. I don’t remember the name of the town; all I can remember is extreme cold, sheets of snow, and an airport with 3 working lights. My concert was over and I was dumped off at the airport with a goodbye and good luck. Like the Band from Alexandria, I was bewildered, alone, and very worried. No information flight boards, no traveler’s aid, no heat..just me and my luggage. In the middle of the desert as far as I was concerned. I will never see America again…I will die here in Russia. Things could be worse, I thought, but I wasn’t sure how worse it could get. I just sat there staring at all the people in the airport. All of them knew which plane to take and which door to go through..they all knew except for me. Oh by the way, it did get worse…now I had to go to the bathroom.
One of my well travelled colleagues once told me, always carry photos of your children..actually they don’t even have to be your children. Just a bunch of photos of kids. He said, trust me, this will save your life. I sat for about an hour, listening to the constant babble of languages I have never heard before. Then, by the grace of G-d, I heard a language I recognized, German. A group German tourists were waiting for a plane to Moscow, the same plane I was waiting for. I listened intently, while kind of sliding down the bench to where they were. I whipped out my album of my children; it might have been photos of someone else’s children, I don’t remember. In an instance, a dozen Germans were oooing and ahhing at these photos. By some miracle, I was actually conversing in pig-Latin German. Through over-exaggerated gestures as if I was a finalist in a charades competition, I explained my problem. I became a member of their group. I found out that my new found friends were waiting for their plane to Moscow since yesterday. Their plane was 26 hours late.
Suddenly they got up and began walking to the door and out to the tarmac. I followed them outside in the snow, carrying my luggage and hoping so hard that this was indeed my plane. I looked around me and there were hundreds of people running to this one lonely plane. 26 hours is a long time to wait even by Russian standards. It was like a scene out of Godzilla; people grabbing their belongings and just running, screaming, yelling…all frightened. At least that’s how I felt. But this technically wasn’t my plane. This was yesterday’s plane!
Eventually, I found myself on the plane that wasn’t mine. The plane was packed. There was no seat assignments..you just go and sit anywhere. I found a place and sat. I felt relieved that I was on my way home. But then, I broke into a cold sweat. I was supposed to be met by a host in Moscow to drive me to the international terminal…a thirty mile drive. Would they still be waiting for me or would I live my remaining years as a Muscovite? And again, I felt a real sense of isolation. My German friends were no where in sight. Was this even the right plane? Could I end up in Siberia? Panic…lots of it.
The face of young child popped into view. I glanced at him and made a funny face. His young parents were sitting by my side. There was only one thing I could do to save my life….photos of my children…or whoever’s children I had in my wallet. It worked once..why not again? Fast forward to my landing in Moscow…my new family took me home, fed me, and drove me the international airport. Ah family….and pictures of children.
There has been many times I found myself in the wrong place. In 1973, I received a fellowship to study clarinet in Berlin, West Germany. It was a difficult time. The CIA and Nixon were involved with the coup of Chile’s Allende and there was intense anti-American sentiment in Berlin. The Yom Kippur War had started. I remember going to a local synagogue for services to be greeted by a line of heavily armed German police guarding the doors. During the service, a local resident whispered to me, “What is a nice boy like you doing in Berlin?” I really didn’t have an answer.
During a week’s engagement in somewhere in Argentina, I wanted to go to Sabbath services at the local synagogue. I arrived at the temple. There were large concrete barricades blocking the entrance. There was a bomb threat some days before. The guard at the door discouraged me from coming in but I persisted. He took my passport and a few minutes later I was allowed in the temple. I participated in the services, even was given the opportunity to go up to the dais or bema. About 30 later, the guard tapped me on the shoulder and escorted me out the door. The wrong place at the wrong time.
But there are other stories that have happier moments. After a tough rehearsal in a small town in Poland, I whispered to myself in English, “Boy, I wished I had a beer.” The next day a case of beer was waiting for me on the podium..an anonymous gift.
While conducting in Sverdlovsk deep and isolated in the Ural mountains, I made friends with the percussion section. Yes…you guessed it..I showed them those photos again. The timpanist was having a birthday party and I was to be the honored guest after the concert. I was deeply honored and humbled. After the concert, still in my tuxedo, I was whisked away to a tiny flat. The entire family was waiting for me… so much food on the table..but nobody had a bite until my arrival. Many children surrounding me..trying to touch me. I was not use to such royal treatment. Why were the children trying to touch me? I was the first American these kids have ever seen. I heard an Elvis Presley record in the background. They wanted me to feel comfortable and the Elvis record was the only thing “American” they had. For that night, I was part of their family. This was a rare moment…it can be a lonely existence visiting unusual and far away countries…like being alone in a small desert town not knowing the language. Family, love, food, and music..the constants that are there if you want to find it.
Several years ago, I took about 50 students on a musical tour to Egypt. Our last concert was outside in a new and beautiful park in Cairo. There were hundreds of people listening to our concert. Moms, dads, and so many children. Some were dressed in western style clothes while others were wearing more traditional attire. It was the best concert of the trip. Children came up to my students talking to them, looking at the large tuba and trying to play the large drums. It was the first time these people have heard western Wind Ensemble music. We were all speaking that international language called music.
I have never once felt like a stranger while visiting my beautiful family in Brazil. Language was never a barrier. Food, music, dancing, poking fun, and the love you get from a close and caring family combined was the common language.
Even in the most desolate places on earth, as long as there is another person around, there is a common language. It is up to you to find it and step out of the desert.