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Training His Lens on Philadelphia

March 29, 2012 By:
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Eran Kolirin

Did Eran Kolirin expect a big brass band to trumpet his arrival last week as a visiting scholar at Temple University?

No, chuckles the award-winning Israeli director of the acclaimed film The Band's Visit; no band in sight.

There was, however, the music of movies as he set the scene as a participant in the Schusterman Visiting Artist Program, a national residency project for Israeli artists funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, with local support from both the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia.

It is, as they would say in Hollywood, a fully scripted visit through April 23 -- with lectures at a number of Temple film school classes, dinners, a gatherings with Federation's Renaissance group, screenings and talks at other area colleges.

The purpose of the program is to "provide a meaningful way to connect North Americans to a diverse and complex contemporary Israel that goes beyond the prism of conflict," says Lynn Schusterman, chair of the foundation.

Kolirin's accomplishments in film made him a natural choice for the Schusterman Foundation, says Marge Goldwater, the Schusterman program director.

"As the spate of Oscar nominees in recent years attests, Israel is an especially exciting center for film today," with artist-in-residence Kolirin "one of Israel's most successful young filmmakers."

The 38 year old's bio bulges with testimonials to Goldwater's praise. A multiple winner of the Kinor David, Israel's equivalent of the Oscar, the Temple visitor probably is most notable for The Band's Visit, the 2007 film about an Egyptian police band bound for the grand opening of an Arab cultural center but get on the wrong bus and disembark instead in a small Israeli village.

A movie about the friction and fiction that afflict many Arab and Israeli encounters, the Visit met with rave receptions.

But when it came to Oscar time, it was strike down The Band. The Israeli entry, ironically, was disqualified for best foreign film consideration, says Kolirin with a sigh, "because too much of the language was in English."

"I got over it," Kolirin says. "I never took it too badly."

Sounds like a plot for a bad TV script. Not that Kolirin would know from such things; he's only been involved in good ones.

Indeed, he's written for Israel's B'Tipul, which attracted large audiences in Israel for two seasons starting in 2005 as a TV series that treated with unusual candor the relationship between a therapist and his patients.

And it did fairly well in the American treatment when HBO remade it as In Treatment. "Two of my episodes I wrote were translated" from Hebrew into English and aired on HBO, says the filmmaker.

Temple and the Schusterman project are happy to channel all his protean talents: TV, says Goldwater, "has become an important Israeli export in the past few years, so he brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the prominent film program at Temple University and to other schools and cultural institutions in the area where he will be speaking."

Kolirin, who teaches at the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem and conducts master classes throughout Israel, sees his work here as serving not so much as a "representative of Israeli cinema," but offering "doses of expertise and an exchange of ideas."

Indeed, the filmmaker -- whose latest project, The Exchange, an existential examination of the unexamined life, recently screened at the 68th Venice International Film Festival -- views himself, in a way, as an exchange student. "I am always learning as a filmmaker, always a scholar of the art."

As an Israeli, he offers distinct direction on the dos and don'ts of Mideast movie-making and considers his native land a marvel in the making.

With Israel grabbing Oscar nominations on an almost annual basis, the Jewish state has made a statement about its commitment to the art.

"There are many aspects and issues" which have enhanced the arena for filmmakers at home, says Kolirin, whose first film was The Long Journey, just out on DVD. This includes "more availability of public funds and better relations with Europe" as a market.

"And Israel is allowing filmmakers to have new points of view," he adds.

The view from North Broad Street, he says, is a familiar one. For the short time he has been here, Philadelphia "reminds me somewhat of Tel Aviv," says the filmmaker, surprised to learn that Philly is, indeed, a Sister City of Tel Aviv.

"I am a city person, like to live in the city," he says. "I like a lot of noise and to hear cars go by," which he will definitely experience at Temple.

Now that he's made the long journey to Philly, accompanied by his wife and 6-year-old son, he's enjoying the city's natural cinematography.

And sound effects: "I had a good time at the Zoo," he says of a visit.

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