Using the optimistic innocence of children, Dancing in Jaffa (2013) succeeds in exploring the effect of explosive racial tensions in Israel between Jewish and Arabic peoples. This is done through the camaraderie developed by Israeli-Palestinians and Israeli- Jewish children as they are forced to learn ballroom dancing with one another by a world-renowned performer. Hilla Medalia’s documentary follows Pierre Dulaine, a four time word champion ballroom dancer who returns to his hometown of Jaffa, Israel with a goal to not only teach young boys and girls the art of dance, but the loftier aim of helping to unite a divided city.
At first, it’s difficult for him to bypass religious ideals presented by the Arabic community – boys and girls aren’t supposed to touch each other – and help ease the mind of parents too conflicted by the grotesque imagery of war the engulfs them. As time elapses classes progress and the invisible barriers crumble as the children begin to place unhindered faith in their partners – once considered strangely obscene. Miraculously, this select group of students begin to befriend one another in the safety of their classrooms, away from the rigorous protests by passionate voices determined on keeping the state of Israel segregated occurring just outside their bedrooms every day. In one scene, Dulaine is teaching at a school for Palestinian-Israeli children when he notices there are no windows.
He asks the students what kind of classroom it is, and when they respond by correcting and informing him that it’s a bomb shelter, he smiles and nods. “Perfect,” he yells enthusiastically. It’s a sublime metaphor for the small bubble Dulaine was trying to construct for them. By removing these children, so confused by the subjective and personal biased teachings their parents relay to them each night and letting them focus on the beauty of humanity found within a dance partner they must come to inherently trust, Dulaine strips them of the atavistic war that dominates their daily lives and brings a carefree light into their world. Medalia’s decision to focus on a dance teacher isn’t accidental and it speaks volumes that her subject, who sweeps in and out in ten weeks, represents a fantastical world of merriment, cultivated by a love for art and creation against a backdrop so overcome with destruction and devastation.
It’s also difficult to not become immediately enamored with the children, who go from being typical kids and not wanting to dance with a girl or a boy to enthusiastic students, dedicating their time to perfecting their newfound hobby with each other. One of the best moments in the film arrives when a Jewish girl and an Arabic boy decide to practice outside of school, and end up on a mini-date on his father’s boat. Dulaine’s goal, to instill an idea of love for humanity that transcends race or colour, is heart-warmingly demonstrated by these two progenies. Dancing in Jaffa is a wonderfully insightful documentary that explores a side of geopolitical tensions in a completely new light. Like Dulaine’s teachings, the feeling of hope, the promise of light at the end of the tunnel, never diminishes.