MRR Review: "Dancing in Jaffa"

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A 2013 documentary which follows the journey of internationally renowned ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine as he returns to his birthplace of Jaffa, Israel, to fulfill his lifelong dream of teaching Jewish and Palestinian Israeli children to dance together.
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Rating: NR
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: January 1, 2013
Directed by: Hilla Medalia
Genre: Documentary

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been cause for much international concern and heartbreak over the years, and numerous broadcasts have detailed the events surrounding this tense political situation. However, a small spark of beauty and inspiration in the midst of turmoil has arrived in the form of "Dancing in Jaffa." This documentary follows a dance teacher who brings Palestinian and Israeli students together through ballroom dancing. The engaging production never gives a false sense of hope, instead taking a realistic look at how a group of students work together and form friendships despite cultural and political barriers.

Pierre Dulaine is a charming dancer who implemented a dance program in New York that brought together different ethnicities. Now, he returns to his hometown of Jaffa, one of a few Israeli cities where Jewish, Christian and Muslim inhabitants live side by sie. Dulaine and his family fled Jaffa in 1948 when he was just 4 years old during the formation of Israel, but he is now returning to the city to implement his 10-week Dancing Classrooms program in five different schools. Each school poses its own challenges. One school is an integrated facility featuring both Jewish and Muslim children.

Dulaine is positive and charismatic, emphasizing ballroom tradition to his young students. He faces many difficulties in the beginning as he must convince conservative parents to let their children dance together. Some of the Muslim children must overcome the cultural taboo of touching the opposite sex, and others completely refuse to dance. When Dulaine sees that the children are having trouble getting excited about ballroom dancing, he shows them a video of one of his most spectacular performances. Later, the children receive a visit from Yvonne Marceau, Dulaine's long-time dance partner who appeared in the video. The children then begin to see the beauty in ballroom dancing. When their instructor announces a big dance contest, the kids are even more eager to start learning the moves for themselves.

During this time of learning and practice, the documentary centers on a few children in particular. Noor is an overweight Muslim girl who is grieving the loss of her father. She is upset that no boys want to dance with her. Her transformation from a withdrawn, sullen child into a star on the dance floor is one of the most exciting parts of the film. Alaa is a shy boy who lives in a small shack, and Lois is a bubbly Jewish girl. As these and other students learn to dance, they slowly build friendships and become more comfortable with one another.

"Dancing in Jaffa" is a beautiful documentary that tells an inspiring story, and the man on whom it centers holds a unique charm in his positive outlook. Dulaine's program in New York was dramatized in the 2006 musical drama "Take the Lead" starring Antonio Banderas. However, the true accounts of Dulaine are even more interesting. Director Hilla Medalia does the story justice, capturing every moment with authenticity and plenty of heart. Her focus on the progression of certain students brings the power of the Dancing Classrooms program to life, and her shift to protests and life in Jaffa give audiences a dose of reality just when sentimental illusions begin to set in. The resulting film is real, emotional and breathtaking.

The last part of the film, during which parents cheer on their dancing children during the big dance contest, is one of the most powerful and moving scenes in the documentary. Seeing children coming together is not so unbelievable as cultural traditions are not as deeply ingrained as they are in adults. However, when the parents of different religions are affected by their children to the point that they can exchange words of congratulations and praise, the success of Dulaine's program becomes clear.

This film is completely objective in its delivery, never once alluding to the superiority of one side over the other. It is the straightforward tale of a small act of diplomacy, but its aim is not to fill viewers with a sense of happiness and false hope. Instead, it documents the reality of a grave situation while successfully proving that the possibility for peace is always present, even if it is only on a small scale. The themes that this film covers spark self-reflection and discussion long after the documentary ends.

"Dancing in Jaffa" examines how a shared passion and pastime can bring children together even when outside forces threaten to drive them apart. However, the question of whether these friendships can endure constantly haunts the mind of the viewer. Covering important themes and engaging individuals, this documentary is a relevant watch for any moviegoer.