Movie review: Waltz over to ‘Dancing Arabs’

Eran Riklis’s latest film has mass appeal on many levels

‘Dancing Arabs’ movie (photo credit: PR)
‘Dancing Arabs’ movie
(photo credit: PR)
Eran Riklis’s latest movie Dancing Arabs , the story of a Palestinian teenager who gets a scholarship to an elite Israeli school in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is a heartfelt, moving film that has had a troubled history so far.
It was the opening film of the Jerusalem Film Festival in July and was scheduled to be released immediately following the festival.
However, its release was delayed until now because of the war, as the producers feared that audiences would not be receptive to the subject matter.
I hope viewers are open to the film now because it is well acted and well written, a unique coming- of-age story that anyone can relate to.
Riklis has made two fine films about Druse and Muslims in Israel – The Syrian Bride (2004) and Lemon Tree (2008) – and other films on the subject that did not measure up, such as the strained Zaytoun (2012) and Cup Final (1991). The good news is that Dancing Arabs is one of his best films. Based on the semi- autobiographical novel by Sayed Kashua, who wrote the script, the film is about a brilliant boy, Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom), growing up in a poor Arab village. His father, Salah (Ali Suliman), was involved in the Palestinian resistance movement and was imprisoned briefly, which has hurt his career. Educated and ambitious, he wants a better life for his son.
The heart of the film is Eyad’s experience at a Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem. Although the liberal, left-leaning students and staff couldn’t be nicer, he feels very distant from them. The language in which he learns, as well as the curriculum that he studies, are from a different culture and perspective, and he can never forget that he is an outsider.
No one can pronounce his name, for example, which is just one of many misunderstandings that gnaw at him. But when one of his classmates, Naomi (Danielle Kitsis), falls in love with him and he with her, his life changes for the better.
All he wants is her. Her family will never accept him, she tells him; and his family, he knows, will not be overjoyed by her. But he’s a teenager in love, and none of this matters to him.
In another storyline, Eyad befriends Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), a wheelchair-bound teenager suffering from a debilitating neurological disease, and his devoted mother, Edna (Yael Abecassis). Spending time with Yonatan fulfills Eyad’s community service requirement at school, but he and the frail teen develop a true bond, each understanding how the other feels set apart from the rest of society. Edna also welcomes Eyad’s visits, not only for the companionship he provides for her son but also because of the friendship she feels for him.
If you’ve seen enough Israeli movies, you might expect this to veer into a mindlessly political direction, where the Arab teen is cruelly cut down by soldiers due to mistaken identity or he starts to feel betrayed by his Jewish friends and takes up arms against them. But screenwriter Kashua, the well- known author and creator of the television series Arab Labor , has envisioned a far more complex fate for his protagonist. There is suspense about how this will all end, and I won’t spoil it. But what is important here is that the characters have depth and do not merely serve the story.
Dancing Arabs makes political points – in an early and very funny sequence, a Jewish peace organizer comes to the school in Eyad’s village and sends a Jewish student to eat dinner at his house, where misunderstandings abound – but it is a character-driven drama. It’s about real people who are separated by politics and their different cultures, and Eyad is a credible and immensely likable character.
The performances are uniformly excellent, especially Barhom as Eyad (he was nominated for an Ophir Award for Best Actor) and Suliman as his father.
Anyone who sees the film – Jew, Arab or someone from outside Israel completely – will be able to identify with the characters and to understand far more about the reality here than they could learn from any article or editorial.