Ballroom dancing bridges gaps between Jewish and Palestinian children in Israel in “Dancing in Jaffa,” a surprising, well-crafted documentary about how the celebrated dancer Pierre Dulaine, a veteran of a tremendously successful interethnic program in New York, returned to help his hometown of Jaffa, which he fled as a 4-year-old in 1948. Starting with a seemingly impossible situation, marked by deep cultural restrictions and war-forged trauma, Hilla Medalia’s film traces a slow but inexorable process of change as spitting enemies learn to tango, rumba and meringue together. The docu’s lesson in intercultural diplomacy proves entertaining enough to ensure enthusiastic audiences during and well beyond its limited theatrical run.
Dulaine enlists students from five schools: two Palestinian-Israeli, two Jewish-Israeli and a fifth, one of Jaffa’s few integrated educational facilities. From the outset, huge obstacles arise. Dulaine must convince highly skeptical parents on both sides of the divide. Muslim boys and girls are not allowed to touch, much less dance together, and few of the Jewish children have even spoken to an Arab kid. Several children refuse outright and are impatiently sent away by Dulaine. But the videotape of a stellar performance from Dulaine’s heyday and a later visit from his partner in that video, Yvonne Marceau, awakens the kids to dancing’s possibilities. As the classes progress, shuddering reluctance gives way to half-hearted efforts and, after Dulaine announces a trophy-bestowing dance contest, more hip-swinging hoofing.
Medalia follows Dulaine’s adventures in and out of classes while focusing on the progress of three students: Lois Dana, an open, outgoing Jewish girl; Alaa Bubali, a sweet, shy Arab boy; and Noor Gabai, an angry, friendless Palestinian girl from the integrated school. As the kids begin meeting and practicing outside school, Bubali visits partner Dana’s apartment, and Dana is welcomed at Bubali’s fisherman’s shack. Bubali’s reaction when Dana’s mother explains that her daughter was fathered via sperm bank ranks as a high point of polite incomprehension. Gabai’s trajectory — from isolated, resentful pariah (nobody wants to be her partner) to the picture of beaming, friendly confidence — falls just short of miraculous.
The contest puts Jewish and Palestinian parents in close proximity as they record their offspring on cell phones and swap congratulatory comments, and the program appears to be a resounding success as Dulaine heads home to Gotham. Only one scene — showing an army-protected invasion of angry right-wingers demanding that Jaffa belong exclusively to the Jews, with Gabai and her mother prominent among those protesting the protest — hints at just how isolated this limited detente may be.
Jaffa’s mix of old and new architecture provides a fitting backdrop for Daniel Kedem’s picturesque lensing, while Krishna Levy and Issar Shulman’s score shows no cultural favoritism.