A young Arab in Israel struggles to find his place and an identity amid necessary compromises in Eran Riklis’ “Dancing Arabs,” a film designed to make Jews — not just Israelis — comfortable with Arabs. That is, until the finale, when bigoted alarmists may take home a more troubling message. Riklis’ strongest film in several years, this is another well-intentioned plea for coexistence, though apart from one scene that lays bare, with welcome righteousness, the disturbing orientalism infiltrating even Israeli intellectual circles, the whole thing is rather too scrubbed and clean. Precisely for this reason, it should play well internationally.
The title, however, will prove tricky in marketing campaigns, especially given current tensions (the Jerusalem Film Festival had to cancel its open-air screening due to security concerns). “Dancing Arabs” is the name of the semi-autobiographical novel it’s derived from, by Israel-based Palestinian scribe Sayed Kashua, who also wrote the script; the French are calling the film either “My Son” or “The Second Son,” both suitable monikers that avoid the minefields of speculation and misunderstanding.
In the Arab village of Tira (Kashua’s hometown; scenes were shot in Kafr Qasim), Eyad (Razi Gabareen as a boy, Tawfeek Barhom as a teen/young man) is his parents’ pride and joy, a whip-smart kid who earns a place in Jerusalem’s most prestigious boarding school. Years earlier, his dad, Salah (Ali Suliman), began university studies in Jerusalem, but political activity got him arrested in 1969, and after serving jail time he returned home, a man of wasted promise, to become a fruit picker.
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Eyad doesn’t fit into his new surroundings: Shy and awkward in Hebrew, without the cultural knowledge of his Israeli contemporaries, he’s isolated until giggly classmate Naomi (Danielle Kitzis) befriends him. Eyad’s other lifeline is Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), a peer with muscular dystrophy whom Eyad is assigned to help with schoolwork. Both are “misfits”: one in a wheelchair, the other an Arab, and under Yonatan’s good-natured teasing, Eyad relaxes and learns to tease back. Yonatan’s mother, Edna (Yael Abecassis), is a firm supporter of her son’s new friend, even asking him to move in when Yonatan’s condition worsens.
Over the course of a few years, Eyad settles into the social element of school life, but most classmates remain wary, and his love affair with Naomi has to be kept a secret. Riklis does a good job of ensuring that many shots almost casually include details such as anti-Arab stickers on telephone booths and the like, and though Eyad’s Hebrew is now native enough to “pass,” a casual sentence in Arabic can get him interrogated by soldiers, especially once the first intifada begins and prejudice against Israel’s Arab population becomes even more blatant.
Riklis carefully takes viewers through these years, from a time when separate but quasi-equal seemed like a possibility through the intifada and the Gulf War, when many Arabs expressed knee-jerk support for Iraq largely out of Muslim solidarity and pride. Such events and others that followed made the dream of coexistence all but an impossibility, reflected in Eyad’s understanding that, to fit into Israeli society, he needs to disguise his Arab identity.
Scripter Kashua, who writes in Hebrew, made several changes to his novel, in which Eyad becomes a sort of non-lethal Tom Ripley. Salah’s illegal political activity is made more palatable, and there’s no mention that Eyad’s grandfather was killed fighting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. These and other bids to soften the tone will no doubt help the pic’s popularity, especially outside Israel, where the much-admired novel is less known. However, taking away some of the grit makes the story too easy: An exception is when Eyad, in class, beautifully dissects how Amos Oz and other Israeli writers use Arab characters in strictly orientalist terms, as sexual fantasies or signifiers of otherness. It’s a liberating scene, even if it’s a bit didactic, and it’s nicely played by Barhom, who skillfully negotiates Eyad’s transition from awkward outsider to metaphorical shape-shifter.
Abecassis, always a welcome presence, is strong as Yonatan’s warm, supportive mother, yet the script isolates her too much: Does she really have no friends, no family? What exactly does she do for a living? Eyad’s understanding mother, Fahima (Laetitia Eido), also deserves more personality, and his two brothers are superfluous window dressing. Brightly lit lensing by Michael Wiesweg, Riklis’ d.p. on “The Syrian Bride,” makes everything attractive — arguably too much so, given the themes, though humorous notes are frequently welcome leavening agents.