Neely Swanson

“Dancing in Jaffa” – even when there’s little to celebrate [MOVIE REVIEW]

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Courtesy The Independent Film Channel LLC. All rights reserved

Courtesy The Independent Film Channel LLC. All rights reserved

“Dancing in Jaffa,” is the story of Pierre Dulaine’s return to the city of his birth with a project he hopes will bridge the gap between Arab Israeli and Jewish Israeli children through dance. Dulaine, holder of four world titles in ballroom dancing, felt that forcing the children to face their so-called enemies face-to-face in a non-confrontational manner might help them overcome the obstacles of inbred prejudice. It was dance that gave Dulaine his self-esteem and allowed him to flourish in a world not always friendly to the awkward child of an Irish father and Arab mother. He knew first- hand the difficulties faced by the Arab Israeli children in a Jewish state as his family had felt forced to leave their Palestinian home in 1948 when the Jewish state was created and was curious to see if there was something he could do even if it was on a child-by-child basis.

His difficulties were many and his standards were high. He had faced similar ones when he brought ballroom dancing to underprivileged children in New York City public schools, as shown in the excellent documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom.” First, of course, he had to find schools willing to participate in the project. Secondly, there were the children, and as any parent of a grade school child can attest, the vast majority would rather chew glass than lay hands (gently) on a member of the opposite sex. It would be later that he would have to confront the fear and discomfort of the children facing, let alone dancing with a child of another faith. Further heightening the tension was the strict time period of 10 weeks from start to the final team competition in which children from a Jewish school would be teamed with children from an Arab school competing with teams from the other combined schools.

But Dulaine was determined and brooked no opposition, overcoming the fears of the students, their parents and the reluctance of some of the teachers. He brought his program to five schools, one, the Weitzman School which taught children of all faiths, the other schools, two Arab schools and two Jewish schools.

“Dancing in Jaffa” is at its most entertaining as we watch Dulaine teaching the children the meringue, rhumba, tango and jitterbug. Gradually eye contact is made, the reluctance of arms touching is conquered and fear of the students from different religions and backgrounds is faced. A particularly enjoyable interlude occurs when Dulaine entices his former partner, Yvonne Marceau to make an appearance. It is the lovely Marceau who seems to single-handedly lure the most reluctant boys into overcoming their fear and loathing of dancing and touching and pushing them forward to the next step – a girl.

Alas, like the vast majority of documentaries, “Dancing in Jaffa” attempts to be too much for too many. Three of the children are followed more closely, Noor, the angry daughter of a Jewish mother who converted to Islam when she married an Arab Israeli, who is bully feared by her classmates; Alaa, the cheerful son of a poor Arab fisherman trying to provide a better life for his large family; and Lois, the Jewish well-adjusted daughter of a single mom, by choice, who lives a modest middle class life. Although each child is relatively interesting, there is no depth or reasonable narrative to allow an investment into their stories. This is particularly true of Noor who, given this particular narrative, is miraculously transformed from sullen bully to cheerful attentive student within the 10 week time period.

Attempting to construct a framework around the difficulties faced by the Arab children, a right wing Jewish demonstration against the presence of the Arab citizenry takes place during Dulaine’s time in Jaffa. Even Dulaine, whose primary sympathies do and should lay with the Arab members of the community, the political realities of life in Israel for non-Jewish citizens, for the subjects of this film are all Israeli citizens, is complicated and not as black and white as is sometimes depicted in the film. Clearly Dulaine himself must have an interesting story to tell but the director’s attempts only muddy the rest of the narrative and clutter the main theme with extraneous information.

It is a shame that the filmmakers didn’t spend more time invested in the classroom and personal lessons of the dancing. It would have been interesting to get to know more of the children within the context of these lessons and their impressions. Perhaps this is what the director intended by following the three children but the lack of depth, context and history short circuited her attempt. Sometimes, as in life in general, less is more. Dulaine’s rationale, intentions and execution should have been enough.

Still, this is, overall, a heartwarming and worthwhile film and one that is recommended for all ages. It is, after all is said and done, hoped that Dulaine’s effort in Jaffa will continue to grow in Jaffa, as his program has in New York, and expand throughout the country. In 1994 he started “Dancing Classroom” in New York City with 30 children and at this point 21,000 have participated. Think of what that might do to mitigate the prejudices of future generations, one rhumba at a time.

Opening Friday April 18 at the Laemmle Royal.