Arab-Israeli issues are at the core of most works by Israeli director Eran Riklis (“The Syrian Bride,” “Lemon Tree,” “Zaytoun”) whose new film “Dancing Arabs” is about a Palestinian/Israeli student who slowly learns to “pass” for a Jew. Based on a best-selling book by Palestinian/Israeli journalist Sayed Kashua, it blends comedy and tragedy. Riklis spoke to Variety’s Nick Vivarelli about the film at the Locarno Film Festival where “Dancing Arabs” screened Thursday (August 7) on the Piazza Grande. Excerpts:
Q: Let’s start with the title: I’ve read that there is an Isreali expression “dancing at two weddings” which in the U.S. could be perhaps translated roughly as “dancing to two different tunes,” Palestinians living in Israel having to hop around from one culture to another.
A: Yes, totally. Being a Palestinian in Israel you are forced to dance. Being a minority anywhere, for that matter. When I first read the book, the cover of the book in Israel was a pair of tough-looking black boots with an oriental rug in the backdrop. I thought: ‘o.k. that’s the story, the backbone of the story is Oriental culture, Arabic culture, and here is someone who is trying to break away.’
Q:Arab-Israeli issues are a recurring theme in your films. But I don’t think you’ve tackled the theme of identity this specifically before.
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A: That’s true. The film starts with a title that says: “Arabs within Israel are 20% of the population.” That’s a lot of people; that’s one fifth of Israel. And yet psychologically, emotionally, they almost don’t exist. If they exist, they exist as trouble. For me it’s astonishing, and I can’t recall any Israeli film that deals with that. So it was a challenge to say: ‘let’s face the Arabs that are closer to us’. There are those who see a dark future and say it’s going to explode one day and those who say we are going to succeed in this.
Q: The film was supposed to open the Jerusalem Film Festival, but I read it was moved to a less prominent slot after the conflict broke out. What hapened and how did you feel about it?
A: It was supposed to be the opener in the festival’s big open-air arena with thousands of people, but three days before the event the war broke out. There were rockets landing in Jerusalem and the police said: ‘no way, we are not authorizing any gatherings of more than 200 people.’ So we had a smaller screening a week later. But the festival still officially called it its opening-night film; they insisted on that.
Q: I also heard that it’s distribution in Israel has been delayed.
A: Yes. But that was our decision. It was supposed to open the same day of the festival,on July 10. On July 6, the three kids were kidnapped and eventually murdered on the West Bank. I called the distributor (United Channels Movies) and said: ‘I think you should consider stopping the release of the film this week. We cannot have posters all over the country saying “Dancing Arabs” when the emotional climate is so strong. Twenty-four hours later there was an Arab kid brutally murdered in Jerusalem and emotions building up even more. That was before the rocket attacks. After the rocket attacks we said: ‘we cannot release the film.’ So we are going to wait a bit, probably until late October. I think and hope that by then people will go back to being a bit less emotional.
Q: The escalating conflict has generated reactions within the international film community. This is occurring at a time when Israeli films and also TV series are really hot. Do you think the conflict can have a negative impact?
A: I don’t think any calls for bans, boycotts, or even what just happened in London where a theatre decided they didn’t want to host a Jewish film festival funded by the Israeli government, are short-sighted. Making movies in Israel, or anywhere for that matter, is an act of survival. The international film community should support the positive forces in the film industry in Israel. But I don’t think it’s going to have an impact.The power of film is stronger than any of this.
Q: There is clearly an optimistic undertone in your film. But right now the situation between Israel and Palestine is particularly tense. Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel?
A: I feel optimistic to a certain degree, but I don’t want to sound unrealistic. But the bottom line is I’m optimistic because even though there is no obvious evidence that extreme violence leads to major change, I hope that maybe this time it will cause all of us to wake up and say ‘this can’t go on’.