After decades of bloodshed, it’s hard to imagine what can bridge the divide between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. But Pierre Dulaine has an idea: dance. The four-time world champion ballroom dancer thinks his art form can transform long-held prejudices, turning wallflowers into confident teens in the process. Hilla Medalia’s documentary “Dancing in Jaffa” follows along as he tries to reach his lofty goals.
Dulaine is a Jaffa native. The child of an Irish father and Palestinian mother, he was born in 1944 in the port city south of Tel Aviv, and he recounts how his family was forced out when he was a child to make way for the creation of Israel. He hadn’t returned until the making of this movie, and although there are hints of sadness in his voice, he’s not there to focus on that loss or attempt to reclaim his land. He just wants both sides to get along.
He begins teaching ballroom dancing at the city’s mostly segregated schools, working with the individual populations separately. But his ultimate goal is to get the kids from the Jewish schools to dance with those from the Arab schools for a big competition.
That plan seems ambitious given that it’s hard enough to get the boys anywhere near the girls. The kids grimace at each other, then cover their hands with the sleeves of their sweatshirts or position their hands a few inches apart for fear of actually making contact with one another. The spiffy, no-nonsense Dulaine responds by nudging the kids together, occasionally slapping them with his tie and sometimes, when pushed to the limit, giving up on a school altogether.
In addition to Dulaine, filmmaker Medalia focuses on three students. Palestinian Noor is closed off from her classmates and is in constant mourning over the loss of her father; Alaa is shy, but happy-go-lucky when he’s at home with his Palestinian parents in their dilapidated shack; and Lois is an outgoing Jewish girl with a funny and frank mother. (Lois’s father, she tells Alaa, was a sperm bank donor.)
Medalia also shows some of the protests that take over Jaffa, as right-wing activists come to the city to march with anti-Arab signs. Fistfights erupt in the street and Muslims picket in protest of the protest.
But just as quickly as hopes seem dashed, Medalia returns to the children as they learn to rumba and waltz. Noor begins to make friends and Alaa comes out of his shell. Lois, meanwhile, practices constantly, in her living room and her bedroom, outside at a park and at school. And all three children — plus many others like them — play and practice together without giving a thought to societal delineations.
While the movie can feel disjointed at times, bouncing around to cover so much territory, the climax of the kids’s ballroom competition makes up for any quibbles. If nothing else, it’s heartening to see the kids so transformed.
Can dance alter a long history of hostility? Maybe. It certainly can’t do any more harm.
Unrated. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable. In English, Arabic and Hebrew with subtitles. 90 minutes.