Going back at least as far as 2001’s Promises, most recent documentaries opting for an optimistic slant on the Israeli-Palestinian situation have centered on children. The next generation, to be sure, is the universal embodiment of hope.
But betting on today’s children to solve a problem down the road is tacit acknowledgement that today’s adults aren’t up to the task — or so those who see the Mideast glass half-empty might say. Both perspectives are skillfully interwoven throughout Dancing in Jaffa , a nuanced, feel-good study of cross-cultural fence-hopping in which the best traits in human nature vie with street-level realities.
The movie’s motor is world champion ballroom dancer and teacher Pierre Dulaine, who returns to his hometown after many years with the self-proclaimed goal of giving something back. Perennially dressed in a starched shirt and tie and fluent in Arabic, English and French, the gray-haired Dulaine, born to a Palestinian mother and an Irish father, is a cosmopolitan alien in a working-class town.
The indefatigable Dulaine is a lifelong proponent of partnered dancing as a way to develop social skills and self-confidence, but in Jaffa he’s determined to apply his pedagogy to an even greater good. His plan is to teach merengue, rhumba and tango to 11-year-olds at various schools, culminating with young Jewish and Palestinian Israelis dancing together in a public ballroom dance competition.
“This is how you learn to work with another person,” Dulaine offhandedly remarks to one child while correcting his form. It’s a lovely sentiment, one that will gradually sink in after the student has become comfortable with the steps and can actually interact with his or her partner.
There’s an unpredictability and bumpiness to Dulaine’s mission, at least initially, that negates the comforting formula that some viewers will expect. Most of the kids are shy, embarrassed and downright resistant to engaging with each other, even without the Islamic prohibition on touching someone of the opposite sex. (None of the Jewish kids are Orthodox.)