“It began with an image of a man in a uniform singing,” relays Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin, director of The Band’s Visit, a sweet flick about the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arriving in Israel to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center and losing its way.

“I started exploring this basic image and the story evolved,” he continues. “I was also inspired by a book by an Egyptian playwright called Ali Salem, who wrote a journey book about his visit to Israel, and in this book he describes in the beginning how he got lost coming to Israel. He was driving his car and got to the wrong city, and he describes because of this mistake some uneventful, not important things that happen to him. He was very taken by those unimportant events that happened because of the mistake.”

And so goes the storyline for The Band’s Visit.

While the stand-out personality of the film is Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), the owner of a small café in a wee town in the middle of nowhere in the Israeli desert, each of the film’s characters has his or her own charm, and as the director reveals, is based on one aspect or another of himself.

“Most of the characters resemble myself,” Kolirin points out. “Each one of them has something from me. I think this is what you do when you write. It’s a reflection of yourself.”

So what exactly about Dina does Kolirin see in himself?

“I see a lot of myself in her,” he assures, “especially her basic feeling that she’s living beside the real life. She’s living day-to-day life, and she has this feeling that somewhere in her youth or somewhere along in her past, she was promised a different, more fantasy life; big, like in the big cinema. It’s another thing that she cannot touch. It’s very close to her, but she cannot really find it. Something that is very instinctive for me, this kind of feeling.”

According to Kolirin, a big unifying theme for all his cinematic players is that they’re all lonely and yearning for some connection, but never really get it. Thus, the action creeps along, and the dialogue is often awkward, yet appropriately real as you watch the characters unravel before your eyes.

Intentionally, there’s no big action to speak of.

“Some people think that cinema has big screen, and you have to fill big screen with big events,” Kolirin says. “But the way I see it you can also use this big screen to make very small events big.”

Though it doesn’t follow the formula of most American blockbusters, the director feels it’s more the universal themes that will resonate – and have resonated – with audiences.

“[It’s been received] overwhelmingly better than I expected in my wildest dream,” he says. “It’s been shown all around the world, and people react to it very warmly. A lot of places that I’ve been to when I was doing it I was thinking I have this very small personal story that maybe some people … but I didn’t expect this really overwhelming love that this movie has been getting.”

While not overtly political, the story of Egyptian men in Israel does put forward important questions of self-identity.

“It’s political,” Kolirin says of The Band’s Visit. “It has a political side to it, but it’s not derived out of the urge to say something political. The process is the other way around. I first tell the story and follow my characters and at the end there is a political consequence.

“For me there is a lot of meaning for myself and a lot of questions that I ask myself regarding the present or the neglecting of the Arab culture in Israel, or questions of my own self-identity.” Though there are many political and cultural questions, Kolirin insists that there is no one message.

“There is no message because I don’t think, why bother making a film if you could reduce it to one message?”

The Band’s Visit releases in select theaters Feb. 8.