Falling into one of the great films never nominated for an Academy Award for 2008, "The Band's Visit" managed to be passed over for Best Foreign Film on account of it having too much English in it. But we'll get back to that thought.
An eight-man Egyptian police force's band travel to Israel, invited to play at the opening on an Arabic art center. Opening with them standing at the airport's arrivals curb for a bus that never comes, the conductor and senior member Tawfiq sends young Khaled in to get directions. He refuses initially, claiming his English isn't good enough, but ends up hitting on the information girl once he gets to the window.
They load onto a bus, and find themselves in a tiny town, devoid of a hotel or another bus until the next day. (The wrong town, perhaps, in that Khaled was too busy flirting to get the directions to a town that sounded similar, but not the same, as where Tawfiq intended to be for the performance.) Restaurant owner Dina is sympathetic to this band of band travelers, and after they head out of town, only to be turned back by Khaled and the others' pleas for food (ending back up at Dina's restaurant).
No religious themes, no suicide bombers, and no war stories that seem to have oozed into films set in, or about, the Middle East. Just a simple story of some travelers, in a foreign land, who are civil, upstanding, peaceful people, encountering more of the same with people from their host country. Simple, effective storytelling.
Or so you'd think. Politically, all the hub-bub was behind the scenes. The Academy rejected Israel's submission of "The Band's Visit" on account of it having too much English. The rules require a foreign film to be at least 50% non-English. (Producer Eilon Ratzkovsky argued in an interview, yes, while it has 22 minutes of English and 18 minutes Arabic and Hebrew, it's a technicality). I would also argue that the subtitles were more than a convenience when they were speaking English, with accents heavy enough that it sounded foreign.
The film was also banned from the Cairo International Film Festival and the festival in Abu Dhabi, which seems perhaps those representing some of the regions depicted aren't ready for such international relations yet.
The film itself is a lonely adventure. Each character seems to carry with them a burden on loneliness that is revealed slowly, and in measured doses. Tawfiq wife died three years ago, having never fully recovered from the suicide of their son. Dina seems to regret never marrying or having children. The patron who hosts four of the band members is seemingly in a loveless marriage, bound to the household by the presence of an infant child. Even Khaled, the seemingly happy young flirt of a guy, is forever trying to find someone he can connect to, but does not.
Though it all, each manage to conduct themselves with an air of dignity and pride, in themselves and as representatives of their town/band, and their country. They weren't Egyptian or Israeli, they were just people, having met in this dead-end town in the middle of nowhere in particular.
It's too bad the film is encountering strife behind the scenes, as it's a film from and about the Middle East worth seeing, both for the film itself, and what it can teach others about how life can, and perhaps should be, for those and others.