Eran Riklis‘s Dancing Arabs, which screened last week on the Piazza Grande in Locarno, was to have opened the 31st Jerusalem International Film Festival a few weeks ago. “On the screen and off, one was never far from discussion of what was euphemistically called ‘the situation,'” notes Nick Pinkerton in a report on this year’s JIFF just posted at Film Comment. The opening night gala was cancelled but the screening was merely postponed. In his dispatch from the Holy City to Keyframe, Laya Maheshwari writes: “An adaptation of two bestselling novels by Sayed Kashua, a popular Israeli Arab author and columnist, Dancing Arabs is the story of Eyad, an Arab boy from a small village who is sent to an elite boarding school in Jerusalem. Once in the metropolis, Eyad must tackle his issues of identity, self-confidence and ambition while caring for Yonatan, a Jewish boy with muscular dystrophy.”
“The stitches resultant from sewing two books together still show a little in the film’s uneven tone, but journeyman Riklis (The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree) manages a more-than-usually engaging pop drama thanks to a breakout performance by Barhom,” writes Pinkerton:
The film’s title, presumably, refers to a scene in which Eyad, on a school vacation during the First Gulf War, watches his father and neighbors cheer on a Scud missile on its way towards Jerusalem—I thought of this scene often in days to come while reviewing the much-circulated footage of Israelis cheering on terminal missile strikes in Gaza. By this point in the film, Eyad has a Jewish girlfriend living in the Holy City, and in this moment he realizes the full extent of his alienation from his family and his background—which is not to say that he henceforth becomes peacefully integrated into Israeli society. The film’s rather pessimistic conclusion, arrived at through a number of identity-switch narrative contrivances that I won’t get into here, is that the best chance an Arab has to get ahead in Israel is to become a Jew.
“Riklis’s strongest film in several years, this is another well-intentioned plea for coexistence,” writes Jay Weissberg in Variety, “though apart from one scene that lays bare, with welcome righteousness, the disturbing orientalism infiltrating even Israeli intellectual circles, the whole thing is rather too scrubbed and clean.”
“Though the fusion between Kashua, a highly respected Israeli Arab journalist and columnist, whose prickly humor often rubs both Israeli and Arabs the wrong way, and Riklis’s more sedate touch, leads sometimes to contradictory results, the film points out in no uncertain manner many painful aspects of the co-existence between the large Arab minority in Israel and the Jewish state.” Dan Fainaru for Screen Daily: “Riklis’s entire cast, particularly Ali Suleiman and Yael Abekassis in supporting roles, offer sympathetic performances, while the efficient assistance of Richard Marizy’s editing lends the first part of the film an economic precision and purposefulness before reaching the disturbing final scene.”
Update, 9/2: “The final twist strikes a lovely, if highly unlikely, note of bittersweet irony,” writes Chris Willman at the Playlist, where he gives Dancing Arabs a B+.