I tend to think of documentaries as belonging to one of two categories—activist or informational (sometimes the latter can also be the former), Hilla Medalia’s Dancing in Jaffa doesn’t quite belong to either one. This is more along the lines of the heart-warming or uplifting documentary. That’s not as grim as it sounds. The story of professional ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine—himself half Arab and half Irish—returning to his native Jaffa to teach ballroom dancing to 11-year-old Jewish and Palestinian schoolchildren is blessedly pretty much goo-free. Dulaine’s idea of bridging the divide between the two cultures through dance may seem a little…well, naively optimistic, but it’s clear that Dulaine himself realizes this. Plus, he’s such an engagingly outrageous figure—and prone to outbursts of temper—that he’s pretty irresistible as a personality.
Does the experiment work? Well, let’s be honest, if it didn’t to some degree, the movie wouldn’t exist. The film itself is pretty straightforward. If you took away its political content, it would be little more than your standard children in competition documentary. But the political aspect of the film gives it not just a distinct identity, but a certain edge. It’s not so much the dancing that you’re apt to take away from the film than it’s the fact that even at age 11 the children have learned to hate or at least distrust each other and each other’s culture. The question is whether they can unlearn this. What’s most interesting and most touching lies in that question and in the slow thaw between the children over the course of the film. It’s something that manages to be sweet without being cloying, and that manages to be hopeful without being altogether too starry-eyed.
The Asheville Jewish Film Festival and Fine Arts Theatre will screen Dancing in Jaffa on Thursday, April 3 at 6 p.m. (reception at 6 p.m. at Blue Spiral1). Admission is $22 for both the film and the reception (there are no film-only tickets). The film only shows again on Friday, April 4 at 1 p.m. and is $8.50.