Published May 15, 2015Eran Riklis has developed a clear formula for filmmaking. Each of his films takes a thinly veiled metaphor — the pissing match over a lemon orchard in Lemon Tree or the transport of an immigrant's dead body in Human Resources Manager — for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and waxes didactic. With Dancing Arabs, the metaphor is even more overt. Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom), a gifted student from Palestine, is granted admission to a prestigious boarding school in Jerusalem in the late '80s. The result, as one might expect, is an ever-increasing litany of obstacles and bigotry.
Despite the familiarity and obviousness of the subject matter, this ersatz coming-of-age tale is Riklis' most ambitious film to date. The sprawling nature of Eyad's quest is Bertolucci-lite, having that observant, yet distancing, look at the maturation process as set against turbulent political times. Unfortunately for Riklis, his tenuous handling of more controversial material and his refusal to indulge in the emotional component of what is ultimately an emotional story leaves his very formal effort working as more of a functional piece than an effective one.
Initially, the dark comic tone of Dancing Arabs is somewhat titillating. As a child in Palestinian territory, Eyad and his family casually joke about building the first Palestinian atomic bomb, with his father claiming that "terrorist" is actually just an Israeli misnomer for "warrior." There are deliberately satiric scenes where Arab children are taught that the road to peace is through their acquiescence and, indirectly, their passivity, which sets up an acerbic tone not unlike that of more masterful filmmaker Elia Suleiman.
But, as is the standard for Riklis, his politicking is too rigid. As Eyad confronts bullies and develops a friendship with Yonaton (Michael Moshonov), a boy suffering from muscular dystrophy, and strikes up a romance with Naomi (Daniel Kitsis) — both Jews — the plotting is highly utilitarian. His friendship with Yonaton is reduced to sarcastic bon mots — Yonaton always jokes that Eyad is a terrorist — and a love of '80s new wave pop, while his relationship with Naomi is never defined outside of their emphatic assertions of "love" towards each other. There's never any whimsy or deeper humanity given to these relationships, chiefly because Riklis is preoccupied with his political agenda and the greater theme of identity.
This isn't to diminish these aims. The eventual developing storyline of false identity, which stems from Eyad's casual use of Yonaton's ID to pass as a Jew later in the film, does open the door for discussion. Throughout the film, Eyad slowly pulls away from his own culture and, in a pivotal scene denoted by the title, is unable to celebrate the potential downfall of Israel in the way that his family does. Contrarily, Eyad is pushed into assimilating — at least on the surface — to Jewish culture in order to have more opportunity for success. This contradiction ultimately quashes Eyad's identity, making his decision to pose as a Jewish citizen in Jerusalem almost a non-issue. The big question here is: What does that mean?
Riklis has handled this question quite well throughout his roster of films. If the road to peace is ultimately refusal of self and the negating of one's own culture, what does that suggest about the ability of cultures to coexist? It's just a shame that Riklis struggles to craft meaningful and believable human interactions within his very formal visual essays. It makes for rather forgettable and disengaging viewing, which is disappointing considering how vital his ideas are.