Some of my favourite themes in life can be whittled down to dance, feel-good hope and repentance. Luckily for me, ‘Dancing in Jaffa’ was a documentary with lots of the first, a little of the second and a struggle with the third.
In short, it is a film which examines the Palestine-Israel conflict through the lens of ballroom dancing and, ultimately, seeks to prove that some cooperation is possible, even if a solution is still out of reach. Pierre Dulaine, an internationally renowned ballroom dancer, takes his celebrated ‘Dancing Classrooms’ program home to his native Palestine, his country till aged four – he was born in 1944 and left in 1948.
Dulaine’s work has been on my periphery for a while – I’m an avid fan of ‘Take the Lead’ (in spite of my better judgment I might add) a Hollywood film about the same program in New York starring Antonio Banderas, but I had no idea Dulaine was a fellow Palestinian. The film is well done, mixing just the right amount of the personal, the political with a side of pathos – and any other word beginning with ‘P’, really. But for me, these kids’ journeys weren’t at all about their dancing abilities, rather their grudging acceptance of the other side and the other sex. These 10-year-old kids from both side of the divide had never actively engaged with their realties. And it was a pertinent reminder of just how impressionable young people are, keep them blinkered and they will replace those who preceded them with no chance in the status quo. It also illuminated the diversity of experience in Jaffa, the wealthier Jewish residents discussing Justin Bieber and IVF surrounded by modern convenience, the poorer Palestinians having bittersweet conversations with their relatives trapped in Gaza and living in cramped conditions.
The film followed the stories of three children and their quest for answers, success and understanding. The case of Nour broke my heart: an Arabic girl at a Jewish school whose mother converted from Judaism to Islam for her Muslim husband – a man who died a few years before. Hers is a tale of hostility and identity crises: she was in a weird no-mans-land, even for an ‘Arab-Israeli’. At school she’s presented as antagonistic though the viewer is shown she is misunderstood and I’d venture to say even victimized by teachers and classmates, for her unarticulated ideologies, her awkwardness and her lack of self-belief. She speaks Hebrew better than Arabic, studies at a Jewish school and lives alone with a parent who moved from one community to the other, if that doesn’t create an identity crisis steeped in liminality, then Lord knows what will. The most heart-wrenching scene for me was her visit to her father’s grave, it was clear she wished so profoundly that he was still with them, almost believing that his presence would absolve her of her burdens and her juxtapositions. The humanity of her tears meant more to me than the entire film. Needless to say she blossomed over the course of the program, learning how to walk and dance with confidence whilst making friends along the way. Even her teachers, those so quick to demean at first, were impressed.
Maybe it takes something as obscure and ostensibly impartial as ballroom dancing to humanize the other side. After all, where do you start on an issue as multi-faceted and tumultuous as the Palestine-Israel conflict? ‘Peace’ talks are failing while political stalemates do not deter the rapid colonization. Putting personal opinions aside, this film showed me that however you think the divide should be bridged (or even if you don’t think it should be bridged at all) at the center of it all lies a future generation who co-inhabit the same space but live in parallel universes. It’s a sticky topic and about as nuanced as politics can get but if you take it out of its milieu and see ballroom dancing as an allegory of respect and understanding, then something resembling cooperation can grow, however faintly.
Originally posted on Infita7 here May 20th 2014.