Review by Miranda Schiller
Pierre Dulaine is a world champion of ballroom dancing. He was born in Jaffa, but like many Palestinians, his family fled in 1948. In 2011, Dulaine returns to his hometown for the first time, and with an ambitious project. He wants to give dancing lessons to school children and have Jewish and Palestinian children dance together. He strongly believes in the power of dance to overcome prejudice, teach people to respect themselves and each other, to walk upright and therefore generally become better persons. The children however recoil at the thought of touching each other. They don’t even seem too fussed about the Jewish and Palestinian thing. But the notions that boys (or girls) smell, and that the kids from the school across the road are all idiots, seem to thrive among twelve-year-olds all over the world, conflict zone or not.
Somehow, Dulaine does not seem to have anticipated that reaction. Maybe he did not expect this amount of normal pre-teen behaviour from children growing up among violence and sectarianism. The film has to revert to a conversation with an otherwise unconnected taxi driver to include a speech along the lines of „I would never dance with those people after having lost some of my best friends in Gaza“ to reintroduce some of the anticipated controversy. This somewhat constructed scene aside, there is a refreshing tendency of discrepancy between the camera’s point of view and Dulaine’s own. Even though he narrates the film and is its protagonist, the camera seems to be less convinced of the project’s success than he is. It shows children laughing at embarrassing dance moves, skiving dance lessons and parents being busy with other problems. Dulaine does not tire of repeating the same lines about the great uniting power of dance over and over again, but his voice betrays growing despair and frustration.
In this way, Dulaine is thankfully not portrayed as some kind of peace hero, but simply as an enthusiastic dance teacher who wants to give something back to the children of the city he was born in. And when some of the children finally come around and start enjoying the dance lessons, we get to know their families and their everyday life. We see how they try to cope with the ubiquitous violence around them, how it just integrates into the normal everyday problems families have, be it rebelling children, poverty or struggles of single parents. But most strikingly, it shows the immense amount of normality in the children’s lives: They chat and giggle with friends, help their younger siblings, and slowly discover that maybe boys aren’t all that bad. And even the kids of the other school, and – oh yes, there was that – the other population group, are quite nice after all. And maybe even ballroom dancing might be quite fun.
It is fairly obvious that only families who were already open and willing to counteract prejudice are portrayed here. For all the uniting power dance may have, Dulaine can’t force anyone to take part and be shown on film. But fortunately, he never suggests that he can. The film does not purport to know a solution to the conflict in Israel. But it does offer a glimpse into the life of families who try to have normal lives and offer their children perspectives beyond the violence around them.
Dancing in Jaffa is out in selected cinemas from Friday 13th February.