Grass roots Middle East diplomacy takes the unlikely form of rumba lessons in "Dancing in Jaffa," a documentary that doesn't force-feed its message of hope but genuinely earns it.
Director Hilla Medalia follows Palestine-born, U.S.-based dance instructor Pierre Dulaine as he inaugurates an ambitious program for Israeli fifth-graders, Muslim and Jewish alike. Her eye-opening, richly observed film takes chances and has a lot of heart, just like the man at its center.
A longtime teacher in New York City schools, Dulaine is at least as charismatic as Antonio Banderas, who played him in the 2006 feature "Take the Lead." Unflappable, decisive and playful, he's an apostle of ballroom dancing as an essential form of communion, built upon trust.
Returning to his hometown of Jaffa for the first time since 1948, when he was a toddler and his family was forced out by the formation of Israel, Dulaine launches a 10-week program in five schools, only one of which integrates Jews and Muslims. Dulaine insists upon ballroom tradition, and that entails convincing Arab mothers to let boys and girls dance together. Once the kids have overcome their shyness and qualms, he moves on to the larger goal: bringing together students from opposite sides of the political and cultural divide. He succeeds, and brilliantly.
Medalia captures nothing less than barriers dissolving. A Palestinian-Israeli boy visits the home of his Jewish dance partner and, in one of the film's many delightful passages, gets an earful about her sperm-bank parentage. Another Palestinian student overcomes profound sadness and anger, emerging as a star of the dance floor.
"Dancing in Jaffa."
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
Playing: At Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles. Also on VOD.