'Dancing Arabs': Locarno Review

Dancing Arabs Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival del film Locarno

Dancing Arabs Still - H 2014

A dense and ambitious story of growing up in Israel as an Arab that plays a little too much with fire

This adaptation of Palestinian-Israeli author Sayed Kashua's novel by Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis ("The Syrian Bride") stars Tawfeek Barhom, Yael Abecassis and Michael Moshonov

A bright Arab-Israeli teenager’s idea of integration is — what else? — to get a bona fide Israeli girlfriend in the dense and multifaceted drama Dancing Arabs. An adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel by Palestinian-Israeli author Sayed Kashua, the latest film from Israeli director Eran Riklis (Zaytoun, The Syrian Bride) is indeed his most novelistic, though the film’s ambition and dexterity is somewhat of a mixed blessing, with, for example, character motivations given short shrift in the sprint to the finish line. This widely pre-sold Israel-France-Germany co-production should have no problems carving a niche for itself on the old continent, while elsewhere, reactions might be more tempered because of the polarizing recent events in the region.

Like about 20 percent of Israel’s population, little Eyad (Razi Gabareen), is an Israeli Arab. It’s the early 1980s and he’s clearly one of the brightest kids in Tira, in Israel's Triangle region, where he grows up and manages to solve an impossible riddle heard on a TV show. Despite the fact that his loving father (Ali Suliman) was detained for several years by Israel when he was a student, when Eyad becomes a teenager in the tail end of the 1980s (with Tawfeek Barhom taking over as Eyad), he’s accepted into a prestigious Israeli boarding school that his father hopes will help his son realize his full potential.

Notwithstanding his obvious intelligence, things are tough at school because Eyad has to deal with different cultural references and use Hebrew instead of Arabic (the film's facile if fun sense of humor is suggested by a scene in which Eyad pronounces the name of a rock band "Deeb Burble," because, unlike in Hebrew, there’s no "p" in Arabic). And in class, the handsome youngster’s also surrounded by people who are used to being taught the Israeli point of view for things ranging from history to literature.

Not unexpectedly, Eyad's relatively petty school problems occasionally take a back seat to political events, with the Arab-Israeli conflict heating up several times, including during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the first Gulf War. Despite a terrorism joke or two, the film itself is almost even-handed to a fault, with the smart and affable Eyad managing to become friends with Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), a student with muscular dystrophy he meets through a community-service program, and more than friends with fellow student Naomi (Danielle Kitzis).

Riklis, working from a screenplay by Kashua that’s reportedly not slavishly faithful to his own book, has to keep a lot of balls in the air throughout. Though there’s a pleasing sense of density here, with countless emotions and events constantly fighting for the audience’s attention, there’s also a nagging sense that the characters around Eyad remain underdeveloped. This is especially true of the women, who initially include Eyad’s mother (Laetitia Eido) and grandmother (Marlene Bajali), and later Yonatan’s mother, Edna (Yael Abecassis). The latter’s unexpected and increasingly rash actions, which come to dominate the third act, would be easier to digest if the motivation behind them were more clearly grounded in a sense of who Edna is as a person instead of just a mame.

But there are a lot of ideas about history, co-habitation, cultural identity, legacy and heritage here that are absolutely fascinating. One of the film’s most impressive (some might say on-the-nose) scenes involves Eyad’s explosion in a literature class that reveals Israeli literature’s inherent bias toward Arab characters. Unfortunately, this impressively staged and acted scene, which is supposed to demonstrate Eyad’s character and intelligence, as well as a reciprocal ethno-cultural bias, also has a major downside in that it immediately affects the way most viewers will likely read the rest of the film. 

A shot almost immediately after his angry classroom explosion shows Eyad carrying the almost paralyzed Yonatan to bed. Instead of a domestic chore or a simple act of friendship or kindness, the preceding scene raises the question of whether the filmmaker intended a kind of commentary on Arab-Israeli relations in the almost Pieta-like image of a paralyzed Israeli being carried by an Arab to his bed. It’s the kind of scrutiny that makes it impossible for the rest of the film to exist on a more down-to-earth level, as simply a story among thousands of stories from the Middle East. This is a shame because the beauty of the film lies precisely in the sense that flawed human characters are struggling on both sides to get on with their lives despite being conditioned to a large extent by a conflict that's perhaps much larger and more abstract than their own individual, concrete realities.

As usual for a Riklis film, actors are all perfectly cast and the production values are high, with cinematographer Michael Wiesweg, who already worked with Riklis on The Syrian Bride, not shying away from classical crane shots that underline that this is a comfortably budgeted production. 

Production companies: UCM, Riva Film, Heimatfilm, MACT Productions, Alma Film Productions

Cast: Tawfeek Barhom, Yael Abecassis, Michael Moshonov, Ali Suliman, Danielle Kitzis, Marlene Bajali, Laetitia Eido, Razi Gabareen, Norman Issa

Director: Eran Riklis

Screenwriter: Sayed Kashua, screenplay based on his novel

Producers: Chilik Michaeli, Michael Eckelt, Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Avraham Pirchi, Tami Leon, Bettina Brokemper

Director of photography: Michael Wiesweg

Production designer: Yoel Herzberg

Costume designer: Hamada Atallah

Editor: Richard Marizy

Composer: Yonathan Riklis

Sales: The Match Factory

No rating, 105 minutes