Dancing in Jaffa (Sundance Selects, NR)

film jaffa 75If anyone could make such an enterprise work it is Pierre Dulaine, whose cosmopolitan background and disarming manner help him navigate the tricky situations that inevitably arise.




film Dancing-in-Jaffa

The remarkable life of Pierre Dulaine, world-champion ballroom dancer and creator of the Dulaine method of dance instruction, forms an ever-present counterpoint to the events in Dancing in Jaffa. Dulaine, born in Jaffa in 1944 to an Irish father and French/Palestinian mother, had to flee with his family following the Arab-Israeli War. After several moves, they settled in Birmingham, London, where he became a member of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing and began a successful career as a solo and partner dancer and dance instructor. In 1994, Dulaine founded the Dancing Classrooms program which was featured in the 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom.

Hilla Medalia’s documentary Dancing in Jaffa documents a much more ambitious endeavor. Dulaine is not just trying to teach young people to overcome their “members of the opposite sex have cooties” stage and to take pride in moving gracefully and elegantly, but to get Israeli Jewish and Muslim Arab children to dance together. This effort faces many more serious barriers, including the disinclination of some Arab parents to allow their children to dance with anyone of the opposite sex (they’re not even supposed to touch), and the fact that many residents of Jaffa lead an essentially segregated existence within either the Jewish or the Arab world.

If anyone could make such an enterprise work it is Dulaine, whose cosmopolitan background and disarming manner help him navigate the tricky situations that inevitably arise. At the same time, he’s not willing to compromise the core values of his program, which include boys and girls dancing together in order to learn trust and respect for each other. He’s aware that this is more of a stretch for some of the children than for others, but says that he is not trying to destroy their traditional values but simply to offer them a choice.

It’s worth nothing that the Jewish children in the film appear to be leading lives based on a middle-class European model, while the Arabs are both more impoverished and traditional, so the Arabs have a much greater distance to travel in order to accept the dancing in the school program. Also, Dulaine does not try to implement the program in an Orthodox Jewish school, where he would encounter some of the same obstacles he meets in the Arab schools.

Dancing in Jaffa includes some socio-political context (the checkpoints that the Palestinians must negotiate, a demonstration by ultra-right Jews, and a counter-demonstration by the Arabs), but mainly concentrates on the children’s growth inside and outside the dance classroom. Three are singled out for particular focus: Noor, an Arab girl whose withdrawal and occasional bursts of anger have their roots in her father’s premature death; Alaa, the cheerful son of an impoverished Arab fisherman; and Lois, a Jewish girl whose mother chose to have her by artificial insemination (something Alaa, for one, simply can’t comprehend).

There are plenty of expected feel-good moments in Dancing in Jaffa, including the contest at the end of the program, but the film goes deeper than just replicating Mad Hot Ballroom in another context. In particular, Dancing in Jaffa manages to make you feel that you are visiting the lives of real children and their families, and seeing genuine interactions rather than synthetic moments crammed into a predetermined storyline. Dulaine also comes off as a real person, with both positive and negative characteristics, and the result is a film that feels true to life.

Besides glossing over the real power differential between the Jewish and Muslim communities in Israel, there’s another aspect to Dancing in Jaffa that makes viewing it a slightly uncomfortable experience: its undercurrent of self-promotion, a feeling that becomes more explicit on the film’s website, which invites you to, among other things, “donate to our movement” and “take action.” Of course, many documentaries are made primarily to push a point of view or promote a cause, but this aspect of Dancing in Jaffa strikes a particularly discordant note in a film that is otherwise avoids so many potential clichés. | Sarah Boslaugh

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply