Monday, April 28, 2014

Dancing in Jaffa

Dancing in Jaffa is a documentary film from director Hilla Medalia in which four-time world dance champion Pierre Dulaine, who also appeared in Mad Hot Ballroom, goes back to his native Jaffa in hopes of helping to bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide through dance by teaching both Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli children how to dance, together no less. Born to an Irish father and Palestinian mother, Dulaine left Jaffa in 1948 at the age of 4 when his family, like many other Palestinians, was forced out of Jaffa by Israel.

The film captures Dulaine’s efforts teaching merengue, salsa and other ballroom dances to children in various schools, including two Jewish-Israeli, two Palestinian-Israeli and one integrated school. While he starts teaching each school separately, his goal is to have an integrated dance competition wherein Jewish and Palestinian children dance together as partners. Just selling the idea to parents and teachers alike is no easy feat, especially when you take into account that the Muslim boys and girls aren’t even allowed to touch one another. Some kids completely refuse to dance, while yet others cover their hands with the sleeves of their sweatshirts to avoid the dreaded boy-girl cooties.

At first reluctant and at times indifferent to Dulaine’s lessons, the children’s interest is piqued when he shares an old video of him and his dance partner, Yvonne Marceau, as they glided across the dance floor as if floating on air; ultimately turning to her for help in reaching his students. In an effort to seemingly help us connect with the subjects, the director focuses her coverage on three different students: Noor, a sad and angry Palestinian girl without many friends who is grieving the loss of her father; Alaa, a sweet and adorable Palestinian boy who lives in a humble fisherman’s shack with his parents and sibling; and Lois, an outgoing Jewish girl, whose mother shocks poor Alaa during a visit when she fesses up to the fact that Lois was born thanks to the use of a sperm bank.

Dancing in Jaffa is moving, sweet and eye-opening. At times offering us a measure of hope as we witness Dulaine’s efforts to positively touch the hearts and minds of these young children, it also highlights many of the reasons for the age old strife between these two groups of people and with it the sad realization that it will probably take a near miracle to bring peace to the region. As you take in the unbridgeable differences in religious beliefs, the fact that Palestinians feel like they are treated like second class citizens, and the bitterness that still festers in the hearts of many Jews and Palestinians from past grievances and losses; it is no surprise that though many have never even personally met a Jewish or Palestinian person, whether stated aloud or not, they still consider each other enemies.

When things start to get a little tense with scenes of protests and hostility on the streets, the director switches back to the kids and the small but noticeable signs of hope and progress; Alaa and Lois visiting each other’s homes; Noor smiling and making friends with Lois as they munch on watermelon, and all the kids putting aside their differences and just dancing. The final competition with the children donning their best outfits along with beautiful smiles is uplifting, especially as you see all the parents join together to root them on, not as a Jewish-Israelis or Palestinian-Israelis, but merely as proud mothers and fathers.

I found Dancing in Jaffa at times depressing as it shined a glaring and unflattering light on both factions in this struggle, but overall I found its message guardedly optimistic. After all when the road is long and the obstacles are many, you have to start somewhere and in this case what better place to start than with the children. Corny but true, Whitney said it best “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.” (Amen to that!). My honest hope is that the results of Dulaine's experiment acts as a pebble tossed in water and that the small ripples of newfound understanding and fragile friendships help to reach hearts and minds far and wide.