Dancing in Jaffa follows dance instructor Pierre Dulaine as he teaches 11-year-old Israelis and Palestinians. (photo from Tiara Blu Films)
Going back at least as far as 2001’s Promises, most recent documentaries that have opted for an optimistic slant on the Israeli-Palestinian situation have centred on children. The next generation, to be sure, is the universal embodiment of hope. But betting on today’s children to solve a problem down the road is tacit acknowledgement that today’s adults aren’t up to the task – or so those who see the Mideast glass as half-empty might say.
Both perspectives are skillfully interwoven in Dancing in Jaffa, a nuanced, feel-good study of cross-cultural fence-hopping in which the best traits in human nature vie with street-level realities.
The movie’s motor is world-champion ballroom dancer and teacher Pierre Dulaine, who returns to his hometown after many years with the self-proclaimed goal of giving something back. Perennially dressed in a starched shirt and tie, and fluent in Arabic, English and French, the grey-haired Dulaine is a cosmopolitan alien in a working-class town.
The indefatigable Dulaine is a lifelong proponent of partnered dancing as a way to develop social skills and self-confidence but, in Jaffa, he’s determined to apply his pedagogy to an even greater good. His plan is to teach merengue, rhumba and tango to 11-year-olds at various schools, culminating with young Jewish and Palestinian Israelis dancing together in a public ballroom dance competition.
“This is how you learn to work with another person,” Dulaine offhandedly remarks to one child while correcting his form. It’s a lovely sentiment, one that will gradually sink in after the student has become comfortable with the steps and can actually look at and interact with his or her partner.
There’s an unpredictability and bumpiness to Dulaine’s mission, at least initially, that negates the comforting formula that some viewers will expect. Most of the kids are shy, embarrassed and downright resistant to engaging with the opposite sex, even without the Islamic prohibition on touching someone of the opposite sex. (None of the Jewish kids are Orthodox.)
While boys will be boys and girls will be girls, Dulaine perseveres with firmness, as well as affection. Progress in the classroom can be hard to discern, however, so the film provides glimpses of the home lives of three children to suggest their individual blossoming.
Hilla Medalia, the prolific Israeli-born producer and/or director of such documentaries as To Die in Jerusalem and Numbered, again displays her talent for gaining access, winning trust and crafting small, revealing moments. The most memorable are political rather than interpersonal, and occur on the street rather than in someone’s home. The arrival in town of an intentionally intimidating group of right-wing Israelis chanting some variation of “Jaffa for the Jews” provides buzz-killing evidence that conciliation is not everyone’s goal.
An illuminating sequence contrasting the observance of Independence Day at a Jewish school with its description as the Nakba (Catastrophe) at a Palestinian Israeli school likewise underscores Medalia’s preference for presenting reality rather than peddling fantasy.
In this regard, she and Dulaine are perfectly in step. He was four years old when he left Jaffa with his Palestinian mother and Irish father during the War of Independence, and he’s chagrined but not surprised when his request to re-enter his family’s old home is summarily rejected by the Jewish owners.
Consistent with the theme that the future is more important than the past, Dulaine’s presence in the film steadily diminishes. We, and he, are left with the satisfaction that individual children have grown and glimpsed possibilities they couldn’t have imagined. A small victory, perhaps, compared to a lasting resolution to the ongoing conflict? Even a pessimist wouldn’t have the chutzpah to call a child’s transformation a “small victory.”
Dancing in Jaffa, in Hebrew, Arabic and English with English subtitles, played at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival in November 2013 and has yet to have a Canadian release date scheduled. It’s on a limited release in the United States. The film currently has a rating of 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.