Eran Riklis, director of Dancing Arabs. (photo from Mongrel Media)
Dancing Arabs, which was part of the most recent Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, has its general release on May 15. A multilayered coming-of-age story, the screenplay is by Sayed Kashua, who wrote the novels on which it is based, and it is directed by Eran Riklis.
While called Dancing Arabs, the film is a combination of Dancing Arabs and Second Person Singular, two novels with very different tones.
“I read a first draft that Sayed wrote before I joined the project and it was much more Dancing Arabs and it was much more kind of a comedy,” Riklis told the Independent in a phone interview. But that changed. The first part of the movie, “which was almost pure Italian comedy,” became a way to draw in the audience, “maybe taking away any preconceptions or resistance that an audience might have when it comes to see a film, where it has all the opinions in the world about the Arabs, and this and that.”
Riklis wanted the audience “to fall in love with the character and then, when the film changes its tone and it gradually becomes more and more dramatic … you can’t walk away because you love this character and you want to root for him, you want to join him on his journey.”
With the novel Dancing Arabs being autobiographical, Riklis said he had to remind Kashua that the film was a different entity. It was about Eyad, “and even though there are reflections of reality, the grandmother and the father, whatever it is, it still is a new life, which is true of almost any film that deals with a real story at least partly.”
The challenge was “to do something which is at once meaningful and yet communicative, and striving to reach a wider audience. For me,” said Riklis, “all my films, or most of my films, deal with, let’s say, not easy issues, but I always try to … remember that this has to be a good story.”
Reaction to his films has varied. “If you look at The Syrian Bride, for instance, it had a very warm reception everywhere, both in Israel and worldwide. Lemon Tree was very tough in Israel because it was a little bit too close to home, and then really about sensitive issues, and yet it was probably my biggest success worldwide.” The response everywhere to Dancing Arabs has been “very emotional,” he said, which makes him happy because it means people “understand that this film comes from a place of respect and love and honoring the subject, as complicated as it is, but nobody’s trying to manipulate you here. There is a manipulation in the sense of filmmaking because that’s what filmmaking is about, but I think, emotionally speaking and intellectually speaking, this is a democratic film: it’s like, here are the facts, here’s the situation, here’s a story, here’s the person … and you judge for yourself.”
“… here we’re talking … about a minority that is 20 percent of the country. That’s 1.6 million people…. This is a major thing and, not only that, they’re not in Afghanistan, they’re living right in the middle of the country, next to us, amongst us, with us, and yet they’re invisible.”
When asked what sets Dancing Arabs apart from his other films about the region, Riklis said, they “have dealt with either the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the regional conflicts or the Druze conflict, whatever, but here we’re talking … about a minority that is 20 percent of the country. That’s 1.6 million people. It’s not like you have some people living on the hillside with two camels. This is a major thing and, not only that, they’re not in Afghanistan, they’re living right in the middle of the country, next to us, amongst us, with us, and yet they’re invisible.”
The novels’ treatment of an internal conflict within Israel “was something that I felt was close to home,” said Riklis. “It’s important enough, and it’s getting more important by the minute. I can see what has happened between the time I shot the film and now. The internal tensions and the growing gap within Israeli society, both within the Jewish one and between the Jews and Arabs inside the country, I felt it’s time to shed a light.”
Riklis and Kashua worked on the script for about a year, on and off, not only because of the material but because they were both busy. Kashua was not involved in the filming process.
“In a strange way, even though it was not an easy film to make on many levels, when I look at it now, I feel it was one of my easiest films,” said Riklis. “That’s because, emotionally, I was so much into it. People ask me, how can you create an Arab family? Well, first of all, I had Sayed writing, so it comes from a very authentic place, but also, once you step in, you say, well, this grandmother is my grandmother, this father could be my father. It’s very easy for me … well, not easy, but, I go back to using respect and knowledge and making sure you get your facts right, at least emotionally, then it’s not so difficult for me because when I watch people, when I look at people, I don’t see color and race, not even age, I don’t really care.”
As with many books, much of the action in Kashua’s novels takes place in the protagonist’s mind. “I think the answer is simplicity,” said Riklis about transforming that style of writing to the screen. “It’s almost like just tell the story, just go with your characters, put them in interesting situations, make sure that every situation is a step forward.
“At the end of the day, I think a director, and almost everybody, is a slave to the story in terms of making sure the story keeps being interesting, keeps being reflective, keeps moving forward.”
“One thing I’ve discovered – but it’s me and another million directors, I think, or at least the good directors have realized – that every inch on the screen is significant. You can sometimes convey 10 pages of text by the color of a shirt. There are so many elements that you put together and I’m really careful with that in terms of what a person is wearing … what’s his environment and what other people are doing and what he’s looking at. And then you have the camera, the kind of lens that you choose and the lighting. There are so many elements that support you but also mean that you have to take responsibility and make sure that they really serve the story. At the end of the day, I think a director, and almost everybody, is a slave to the story in terms of making sure the story keeps being interesting, keeps being reflective, keeps moving forward.”
Music plays a big role in both books, and also in the film.
“It’s funny,” said Riklis, “because there were a lot of things in the script where it was like, ‘Naomi [Eyad’s Jewish girlfriend] and Eyad go to a concert in a club in Jerusalem,’ and we didn’t dig into it…. Then I found myself Googling myself to death to find what was popular in the late ’80s in Israel.” He came upon a song from a controversial rock opera, with explicit lyrics about rape and the Palestinians, and it became “a totally different scene. Suddenly, it’s emotional, and suddenly Naomi’s not feeling comfortable and Eyad is not feeling comfortable, and it has its own message and it’s brutal, and yet it’s not.
“Same thing went with, for instance, Joy Division, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart,’ which came from me.” Riklis had seen Control, a film about the British band. He said, “Ian Curtis, the lead singer, was epileptic and used to collapse on stage and at some point couldn’t take it anymore and committed suicide at a very young age – I felt, wow, this is the song for Yonatan, this is exactly a reflection of Yonatan’s life.” A peer who Eyad helps with his schoolwork and eventually befriends, Yonatan has muscular dystrophy.
There were other sound choices, as well. For example, where the script says Naomi and Eyad go to a movie, “I realized that following the scene where Eyad carries Yonatan to the bathroom, which is a very emotional scene, and he carries him almost like it’s a very Christian or Jewish image … my next cut I knew was Naomi and Eyad at the cinema and I didn’t want to see a clip from a movie, I wanted to listen to it. Then I said, OK, what’s appropriate here?… I thought about Wings of Desire, the Wim Wenders film, which in Hebrew is called Angels of Berlin. I said, what we need now, what Yonatan needs now, maybe Eyad as well, is an angel to protect him and to maybe keep him alive. And so I said, maybe it would be beautiful if they [are] listen[ing] to this monologue from the film, the beautiful voice of Bruno Ganz. Even though it’s in German, it’s just purely emotional.
“That’s the way I work,” said Riklis. Whether it’s the music, films “or even the news clips that you see in the movie, they always give you another layer. For example, Eyad comes to Edna’s and Yonatan’s house for the first time and he’s left alone in the living room. On television, there’s a report about a suicide terrorist who drove a bus into a ravine and dozens were killed.… The reality outside is on TV and yet he goes to the window and he watches and he hears the Arab prayers coming from the Old City. It’s almost like he’s looking at his own [life], like his older life is calling him back. And yet, he’s in this fancy apartment in west Jerusalem.”
Riklis admitted, “It’s interesting, I think, when people see the film for the second time – they discover so many things they haven’t seen the first time.”