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Dancing in Jaffa

Hilla Medalia’s Dancing in Jaffa provides a sharper alternative title for itself. The man whose activities it follows, Pierre Dulaine, says near the documentary’s start that he’s trying to get school children to “dance with the enemy.” These last four words are closer to the point than the blander title that was chosen. The 60ish Dulaine has returned to Jaffa, the Israeli city of his birth, after an almost lifelong absence to offer ballroom dancing classes and a dance competition for both Jewish and Palestinian kids.

An ebullient, slightly theatrical, and articulate figure of mixed Palestinian-European descent, Dulaine was forced to leave this seaside city with his parents during the Jewish-Arab war that ended with the establishment of the Israeli state. A former ballroom dancing champion and instructor, his unlikely ambition is to use his art to bring very young Jews and Arabs, and their parents, together and to give these youngsters greater self-confidence and cross-cultural knowledge of their divided city. (Jaffa is one-third Palestinian.)

Dulaine is clear-eyed about the political situation. He tells an Israeli cabbie that his family “lost our home for the creation of Israel,” but he seems to bear no ill-will.

The project almost founders before it gets off the ground. Arab-Muslim parents and pupils reject mixed-gender dancing, and he only seems to get things going when he approaches Israeli-run schools with mixed-national student bodies. (The movie is rather obscure about details and time-frames.) As a proud graduate of Mrs. House’s dance classes for young ladies and gentleman, I can say that Dulaine’s project seems a little odd and dubious. Ballroom dancing is decidedly not an important social constituent in the lives of today’s sixth and seventh graders, here or in the Middle East. When several kids are overheard referencing Facebook and Justin Bieber in casual conversation, it strikes a strangely anachronistic note.

The movie documents Dulaine’s broad success despite such obstacles, if not as informatively as the viewer might want. It’s too often a little disjointed, and vague about characters and events.

Dancing in Jaffa’s personal glimpses are sometimes charming but also difficult to comprehend. It can be touching and eccentrically appealing, even if it’s not always informatively specific.

Watch the trailer for Dancing in Jaffa

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