Glimmer of Hope in Israel-Set Films
Updated: May 23, 2019
"My belief is that when a human being dances with another human being, something happens," vows the star of the 2013 documentary, "Dancing in Jaffa."
Replace “dances” with “engages” or even “befriends,” and you get a sense of the hope, however tenuous, running through a handful of films now available online about friendships and romances between Israelis and Palestinians.
With violence erupting again in the region in recent weeks, the trope is a welcome symbol of the human capacity to love, to find commonalities and forge bonds even across the most deep-rooted of hostilities.
What follows are reviews of four such films available on Netflix.
Dancing in Jaffa (USA, 2013)
This documentary follows world-renowned ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine on a return to his birth city of Jaffa to teach Israeli and Palestinian children to dance. His desire is that nationalities, ethnicities and religions will fade away in the proximity with the other, and dance will become a “common language.”
Dulaine recognizes he’s asking the children (and, by extension, their families) to “dance with the enemy,” even if such words aren’t vocalized, but his hope is to plant a seed of mutual trust and respect in the children. It won’t be easy, given the long history of violence that has seemingly left no family in the region unaffected.
Dulaine is an exacting artist, which serves him well in this undertaking, and he exudes charm. Director Hilla Medalia had a movie with his presence alone (two have been made before), but she wisely opts to tell the stories of several of the children as well, gifting viewers multiple perspectives on the program, the lives touched and the friendships forged.
The Other Son (France, 2012)
Other directors have bridged the same chasm through fiction. The sibling-like rivalry takes human form in “Le Fils de l’Autre” (more faithfully, “The Other’s Son”). Seventeen years after the fact, an Israeli and a Palestinian family must face the discovery that their sons were swapped at birth.
Joseph was raised in Tel Aviv but is now told by his Rabbi that he’s not actually Jewish, and Yacine, from the West Bank, claims of his newfound Jewish heritage, “I’m my own worst enemy, but I have to love myself anyway.”
When the two stand in front of a mirror, Yacine sees Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham’s estranged sons, forefathers of the Israelites and the Arabs. The allusion gives the ending, when they come together as brothers, added significance.
Still, you can’t help but feel one of the boys got the raw end of the deal, and director/co-scripter Lorraine Levy makes clear which, in overtly contrasted settings and, more subtly, in the fear and limitations of the Palestinian characters’ existence versus the Israelis’ relatively comfortable, carefree and cosmopolitan lifestyle
Out in the Dark (Israel/USA, 2012)
“Out in the Dark” continues this theme. Of the two gay men in the central couple, one Palestinian and one Israeli, the former is the movie’s emotional and narrative catalyst.
Psychology student Nimr has had to work tirelessly within limited means to secure a study permit for a Tel Aviv university. Israeli Roy comes from a wealthy family, works at his father’s well-connected law firm, drives a fancy car and eats sushi like a chopstick pro.
Despite their tender bond, Roy and Nimr are reminded by everyone around them that “you can’t forget where you live,” and it’s not long before reality shatters their dreams. Nimr’s tense border crossings and hidden sexuality, both alluded to in the film’s title, are exacerbated by his brother’s stockpiling of weapons and the Israeli secret service’s inevitable involvement.
The film’s glossy, mostly after-dark filming imbues it with a modernity and edginess absent in some of the other films reviewed here.
A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (France/Israel/Canada, 2011)
French-Israeli teen Tal moons over her ponytailed boyfriend and pouts through a new chin piercing in her comfortable Jerusalem bedroom decorated with a lava lamp and a lip-shaped telephone.
Meanwhile, less than 50 miles away in Gaza, the fatherless Naim dodges bombs on the streets and shares a sparse one-bedroom apartment with his mother and occasional refugees.
But nothing is so clear cut, and when Naim finds a note Tal put in a bottle and threw in the Gaza Sea, the two start an email correspondence comparing experiences and questioning the politics shaping their lives.
This film can feel like a beginner’s guide to the conflict, but the lead actors carry the story with honest portrayals of two young people dreaming of a “normal life.” Naim gets a step closer when he receives a scholarship to study in France. So the two will always have Paris, if not a clear relationship.
“Nothing is easy between us, but everything is possible,” they tell each other, a message all of these films seem intent on sending out to the world as well.