Jaffa solicits youthful dancing partners for peace

Going back at least as far as 2001’s “Promises,” most recent documentaries that opted 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.

Dance teacher Pierre Dulaine with his students photo/ifc films

Both perspectives are skillfully interwoven in “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.

“Dancing in Jaffa,” which played last summer’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, opens Friday, April 25 at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco.

The documentary’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 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 look at and interact with a 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 the opposite sex, even without the Islamic prohibition on touching someone of the opposite sex. (None of the Jewish kids are Orthodox.)

While boys will be boys, and girls will be girls, Dulaine perseveres with firmness as well as affection. Progress in the classroom can be hard to discern, however, so the film provides glimpses of the home lives of three children to suggest their individual blossoming.

Hilla Medalia, the prolific Israeli-born producer and/or director of such documentaries as “To Die in Jerusalem” and “Numbered,” again displays her talent for gaining access, winning trust and crafting small, revealing moments.

The most memorable are political rather than interpersonal, and occur on the street rather than in someone’s home. The arrival in town of an intentionally intimidating group of right-wing Israelis chanting some variation of “Jaffa for the Jews” provides buzz-killing evidence that conciliation is not everyone’s goal.

An illuminating sequence contrasting the observance of Israeli Independence Day at a Jewish school with its description as the Nakba — “catastrophe” — at a Palestinian Israeli school likewise underscores Medalia’s preference for presenting reality rather than peddling fantasy.

In this regard, she and Dulaine are perfectly in step. He was 4 years old when he left Jaffa with his Palestinian mother and Irish father during the War of Independence, and he’s chagrined but not surprised when his request to re-enter his family’s old home is summarily rejected by the Jewish owners.

Consistent with the theme that the future is more important than the past, Dulaine’s presence in the film steadily diminishes. We, and he, are left with the satisfaction that individual children have grown and glimpsed possibilities they couldn’t have imagined.

A small victory, perhaps, compared to the possibility of a lasting resolution to the ongoing conflict? Even a pessimist wouldn’t have the chutzpah to call a child’s transformation a “small victory.”

“Dancing in Jaffa” opens Friday, April 25, at Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco. In English, Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles. (Not rated. 89 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.