Club founder Jonny Aizik, GS-JTS ‘22, talks to Sasson Gabai

This past Friday, a new cultural group on campus called the Jewish Israeli Film Club held a film screening of The Band’s Visit – and hosted Sasson Gabai, one of the film’s stars, for a meet-in-greet. Managing Editor Betsy Ladyzhets attended the event and talked to the group’s founder about its goals.

Both the 2007 Israeli film The Band’s Visit and the Broadway musical adapted from it begin with the lines: “Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel, from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” But the rest of the film (and musical) demonstrates that, even though no major events happen, people can still be irrevocably changed by moments of real human connection.

Such moments of human connection are the goal of the Jewish Israeli Film Club, a new cultural group on campus founded by Jonny Aizik, GS-JTS ‘22, with the help of Romie Ronen, GS-JTS ‘22, and additional support of the Hillel Center. It thus seems only logical that the club would screen The Band’s Visit at their first event. After watching the film, the group hosted Sasson Gabai, an Israeli actor who stars in the film and is now starring in the musical adaptation, for a meet-and-greet.

The Band’s Visit tells the story of an Egyptian police band that travels to Israel for a concert. The band is stranded at the airport when their ride to the city where they are meant to perform doesn’t come. They try to take a bus, but because none of the band members speak English particularly well, they make a mistake and travel to Beit Hatikva, a tiny town in the middle of the desert, instead of Petah Tikva, the large city where they’re meant to perform. As there are no buses going out of Beit Hatikva until the next day, the band members stay the night with local townspeople. The film and musical focus on that night, showing how the different Egyptian band members connect with the people of Beit Hatikva despite linguistic and cultural barriers.

The Jewish Israeli Film Club hosted their event in a small, bright space in the Kraft Center. Although about 30 chairs were set up and a full feast of pizza and snacks was set up in the back, only a few people came to the movie screening, mostly the coordinators of the club and a couple of their friends. In the short break between the movie and Sasson Gabai’s arrival, the attendees discussed differences between the film and the musical.

Anyone who has seen The Band’s Visit on Broadway or listened to the soundtrack is familiar with its intense songs, beautiful melodies packed with loneliness and yearning for connection. In the film, these emotions are portrayed largely though close-up camera shots and through a soundtrack of mostly instrumental music (including songs of both Israeli and Arabic styles.) Some audience members said they found the film’s lack of articulated emotions strange, while others appreciated the weight left by unspoken feelings. One Israeli student said that she prefers the film because the Broadway musical is not quite accurate; to her, the accent of Katrina Lenk (the lead actress of the musical) sounds more French than Israeli.

Sasson Gabai, who is now an integral part of both the film and the musical, discussed these differences in his short talk. More audience members arrived for the meet-and-greet portion of the event, which was just as informal as its title suggests. Jonny Aizik sat with Gabai at the front of the room and asked a few questions about his career, The Band’s Visit, and the actor’s move to New York City for his Broadway role. The talk felt more like a conversation than an interview; Gabai later noted that he knows Aizik’s parents from connections in Israel.

“I see myself mainly as a theater actor, because this is my first love, theater,” Gabai said. On a more practical note, he added, “In Israel, you can’t rely on TV and film to make a living.” He loves that theater allows an actor to connect individually with every member of every night’s audience. Even when he acts for a film or television show, Gabai explained, he still imagines an audience behind the camera. Such consideration is evident in both incarnations of The Band’s Visit, in which Gabai’s character speaks little but imbues each word with weight.

Aizik asked Gabai about increased international recognition of Israeli film and television, which includes the The Band’s Visit film as well as Homeland, which was based on the Israeli series Prisoner of War, and Mermaids, an Israeli thriller series (originally called Betoolot) starring Sasson Gabai which is set for a Russian remake. Gabai believes that this recognition is due to the Israeli industry telling more personal stories. First, he said, Israel had a period of traditional dramas, then had a period of films about Israel’s conflicts with other nations, and now finally the nation’s filmmakers are showcasing the lives of ordinary people.

“In my opinion, [private stories are] what will make the Israeli industry jump to another level and be appreciated by people around the world,” Gabai said. “As the industry became more private, it becomes more expanded.”

Gabai believes that Israeli filmmakers are telling these private stories in a unique manner which captivates international audiences. The Band’s Visit is one such private story which has clearly captivated Americans – the musical won ten Tony Awards last summer. Gabai praised writers David Yazbeck and Itamar Moses for translating what he called a “delicate film” into an equally delicate musical. He also praised his fellow cast members, especially Ari’el Stachel (winner of the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his role as Haled), for bringing the film’s characters to light in a new way. He encouraged all the audience members to go see The Band’s Visit on Broadway.

When Tewfiq, the band director, asks Dina, the cafe owner, how to get to the Arab Cultural Center, she replies that Beit Hatikva has “no culture, not Arab culture, not Israeli culture, no culture at all.” Yet the rest of the film proves her wrong: Beit Hatikva’s culture is in its people, from the old man who barely speaks English yet knows all the words to Summertime, to the young man who hears the ocean when he attempts to talk to girls, to the woman who wishes she weren’t too old for a grand love story. Israel’s culture, like the culture of any other nation, lies in the stories of its ordinary people, and the nation’s film and television industries are telling such stories in new ways.

The Jewish Israeli Film Club hopes to bring more stories from this culture to Columbia in the form of future monthly film screenings. “There’s a lot of political groups on campus, a lot of very adamant opinions, and I wanted to give an escape from that,” Jonny Aizik told me. “This is an opportunity for people to come together, see some films they haven’t seen before, and maybe have some food while they’re at it.” Most of the attendees at this first event were already familiar with both the film screened and the culture it showcases, but if the Film Club is able to increase its outreach and host larger audiences, its members may be able to cross political divides just like a certain “unimportant” group of musicians. This writer, at least, was captivated.

those chairs look really comfy via Betsy Ladyzhets