Directed by: Hilla Medalia.
Written by: Philip Shane & Hilla Medalia.
When I heard the premise of the documentary Dancing in Jaffa I thought I knew what to expect from the film – an inspirational documentary that doesn’t so much deal in reality but wants to put a sunny face on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The movie is about Pierre Dulaine, who was born in Jaffa to Palestinian parents, but who immigrated to America in his youth where he became a champion ballroom dancer, and later a teacher. But what he has always wanted to do is return to Jaffa, and teach the children there – but the Jews and Muslims – to dance together. While the film is in many ways the inspirational documentary I thought it would be – but it also doesn’t shy away from the realities in Jaffa specifically and Israel in general.
The smartest thing that is said in Dancing in Jaffa is by Dulaine early in the film when he tells a cab driver that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are going to go anywhere, so they need to find a way to live together. The hardliners on both sides would disagree with that, but to most of us, that seems reasonable – it acknowledges the reality of the situation that isn’t likely to change until both sides can agree on that one simple thing.
When Dulaine starts teaching at various schools in Jaffa, things don’t go quite as smoothly as he would like them to. In the individual schools, things go pretty well – the kids, who are all around 10 or 11 – dance together and have fun. It’s when he tries to integrate them together when things go wrong. Some of the children refuse to touch each other – they talk about what their parents would think. The film shows many of those parents, and Dancing in Jaffa acknowledges the situation. It shows the protests and celebrations on both sides – the Jews would want the Muslims to leave the city, and the Muslims who want the Jews to leave. Neither side really deals or talks to the other side at all – they don’t see each other as people, but as something they want gone.
As the film moves along, the children start to get better – the ones who Dulaine select to take part in a competition do start to touch each other when they dance, do get to know each other, and talk to each other – and a few even see each other outside of the class. They acknowledge that before the class they didn’t even talk to someone on the other side – and now they have become friends with some of them.
Dancing in Jaffa never loses sight on how little impact the program is actually having. The world outside of the class doesn’t change at all, and the movie doesn’t really argue that all the sides need to do is get to know each other, find common ground, and then they can move forward. The film knows that the progress made in Dancing in Jaffa will have little to no effect on the situation in general – and then even some of the kids in the class have not made all that much progress. But for others, it does make a difference –it makes some of the students see each other in a way they have not before. Perhaps Dulaine didn’t accomplish everything he wanted – but he did accomplish something. If more people were at least willing to try, then slowly things may start to get better.