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A sequel of sorts to 2005’s Mad Hot Ballroom — later given a fictional treatment in the Antonio Banderas-starrer Take the Lead, Hilla Medalia’s documentary again concerns a ballroom dancing competition among 11-year-old fifth-graders. But Dancing in Jaffa offers a socio-political twist, detailing the difficulties of staging such an event between Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli children in a region where tensions between the two groups predominate. Although essentially familiar in its themes — both of the dancing competition and Palestinian-Israeli variety — the film whose executive producers include Morgan Spurlock and La Toya Jackson emerges as yet another heartwarming exercise demonstrating the positive effects of children learning how to dance a mean rumba.
Former celebrated dancer Pierre Dulaine, also seen in the previous film, is the central figure here, seeking to bring his acclaimed Dancing Classes program to the city where he was born to an Irish father and Palestinian mother and from which his family fled when he was just a child. It’s an emotional homecoming that is not without its complications, as demonstrated in an episode in which he attempts to revisit the house in which he grew up only to encounter hostility from its current residents.
“What I’m asking them to do is to dance with the enemy,” comments Dulaine early in the proceedings, and it quickly becomes apparent that the task will not be easy. Both the children and their parents have deep reservations about the idea, which necessarily involves close interactions and physical touching between the children. But things seem to turn around when Dulaine enlists the services of his former dancing partner, the elegant Yvonne Marceau, to provide a vivid demonstration of their skills. Dulaine, commenting that he and Marceau have known each other for 35 years, tells the children, “You don’t have to marry everyone you dance with.”
Director Medalia concentrates on several of the youngsters participating in the program, including Noor, still emotionally devastated by the death of her father; Alaa, struggling with poverty and living in a shack with his fisherman father; and Lois, whose single mother conceived her via a sperm bank. They display varying levels of enthusiasm for the program, but by the time of the final inter-school competition they’re dancing up a storm, with their proud parents, including one woman wearing a burka, eagerly snapping pictures.
While the film doesn’t dig deeply enough into the myriad political and social issues it raises, it’s nonetheless warmly entertaining, thanks to Dulaine’s ever-genial presence and the irresistible appeal of watching young children overcome their instilled fears and prejudices –“Oh my god, we were looking into each other’s eyes,” breathlessly exclaims one Jewish girl after dancing with a Palestinian Muslim boy — and joyously cutting a rug on the dance floor.
Opens April 11 (Sundance Selects)
Production: Tiara Blue Films, Know Productions
Director: Hilla Medalia
Screenwriters: Philip Shane, Hilla Medalia
Producers: Diane Nabatoff, Neta Zwebner-Zaibert, Hilla Medalia
Executive producers: Morgan Spurlock, Jeremy Chilnick, La Toya Jackson, Jeffre Phillips, Nigel Lythgoe, Dan Setton, Jody and John Arnhold, Robert Machinist, Jonathan Shukat
Director of photography: Daniel Kedem
Editors: Philip Shane, Bob Eisenhardt
Composers: Krishna Levy, Issar Shulman
Not rated, 88 min.
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