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Documentary Review - Dancing in Jaffa

A former world champion ballroom dancer attempts to unite Israeli and Palestinian children through dance.


Directed by: Hilla Medalia

Featuring: Pierre Dulaine, Yvonne Marceau, Alaa Bubali


Dancing in Jaffa is a documentary dedicated to one man’s quest to begin the healing of deep cultural and political divisions through the power of dance. That may sound hookey, but if anyone is the man for such an undertaking it is this film’s subject, Pierre Dulaine. A four time Ballroom Dancing World Champion and a native by birth of Jaffa, the ancient port city adjoining Tel Aviv, Dulaine is half-Irish, half-Palestinian and as such acutely aware of the cultural tensions of the region. The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 resulted in the annexation of the city and a mass exodus of the native Palestinian population (who were some 70,000 strong). Those who remained, Christian and Muslim, exist in a state of unease with the presiding authorities.
Paul’s programme of action involves recruiting schools to his cause, to begin a 10 week course teaching Arab and Israeli children ballroom dancing, then selecting the best for a competition. He seeks the involvement of four schools where the children learn in a monocultural environment. He finds an Arabic school, a Hebrew school and one of Israel’s few mixed learning establishments.
Very rapidly in the film he hits obstacles. Boys and girls dancing is a contentious matter in these conservative cultures, particularly among the Muslim community who have an entrenched suspicion of music and dance written into their orthodoxy. Although Paul is a talented and driven teacher, it’s hard to teach ballroom when the kids don’t want to touch each other’s hands, or be paired off with members of the opposite sex.
The opening line of the film is the theory behind the plan. Supplied in voiceover by Paul as we are treated to footage of he and a partner in their heyday, some 35 years previously, he explains “I believe that dancing with a person, something happens… you get to know that person in a way you cannot describe.”
The 10 week training period building to the contest creates a narrative spine for Dancing in Jaffa that prevents it from being formless or dull. The film is skilfully edited and the selection from what must have been hundreds of hours of material creates a strong sense of place and people. Particularly commendable is the inclusion of footage of the children’s home lives: their conversations with their parents, their mourning of loss, those who have some affluence and those who live in virtual poverty. This material is sweet and simple and in one or two scenes, very touching and melancholy.
Jaffa as a place is a rich visual subject, so there is a diverting travelogue feel to proceedings. This and Apples of the Golan have given me a serious wanderlust for Israel. The natural light is very cinematic and makes unflashy, direct compositions a vividness and palpable quality.
This film may not be for everyone but it probably should be. It’s a strong human interest story with a curiously gentle but radical political message about the power of art which is implied rather than directly stated. I can’t tell if that’s a strength or a slight weakness. Something tells me that this film will reward repeat viewing. For all its detail and its chatty central subject, a little ostentatious without being over-the-top, Dancing in Jaffa is a film that invites and probably rewards reflection.





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