Friday, May 15, 2015

Israel’s Cinematic Ambassador: Eran Riklis' Dancing Arabs

Director Eran Riklis.

Toronto and Canadian audiences may not know it but Canada is the only country, to date, outside of its home country Israel, that will get to see Eran Riklis’ new film under its original title of Dancing Arabs. Mildly contentious, I suppose, but it seems to be a no-no for foreign distributors, says the genial, relaxed Riklis, in Toronto for the film’s opening of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. “I’m very happy that in Canada they kept it because the French changed it to Mon fils (My Sons), the Spanish to Mis Hijos (My Sons), the Germans changed it to My Heart Dances, the U.S. to A Borrowed Identity. I’m thinking I’m holding the world record [for film titles].” So what he does mean by the title, which chronicles the experience of Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom), an Israeli-Arab boy from a small town who is accepted into a prestigious Israeli arts academy in Jerusalem where he is the only Arab in attendance? “It’s very complex," says Riklis, “it’s a variety of things, the fact, this notion, you’re part of the minority, you kind of dance to please the majority in life, [as in] normal classic dance [which is] two steps forward, one backwards. If you want to take it really a little bit more extreme, it’s almost like being the jester in a way, [who] has to dance for the master. It’s a complex relationship.”

Dancing Arabs, which chronicles Eyad’s fraught romantic relationship with Naomi (Danielle Kitsis), a Jewish girl and his budding friendship with Jonathan (Michael Moshonov), an Israeli boy suffering from muscular dystrophy, is just the latest of Riklis’ films to deal with relations between Israeli Jews and ‘the other’, be it Palestinians in Cup Final (1991), Lemon Tree (2008) and Zaytoun (2012) or the Druze living in Israel and Syria in The Syrian Bride (2004). But Dancing Arabs is one of the relatively few Israeli films to deal with the country’s large Arab minority, which as the opening of the film clearly states make up 20% of the population, more than a million people.

The film spans the early 80s to the early 90s, for several specific reasons. “It’s semi-autobiographical,” says Riklis, based on Arab-Israeli Sayed Kashua’s novel of the same name. (Kashua, creator of the hit Israeli TV series Arab Labor and a journalist, also wrote the film). “If you set it now, almost every day you’d have something happen, look at last year, summer, this war with Gaza erupted.” I interrupt pointing out that something always happens in Israel, prompting Riklis to add, “That’s true and that’s why I think you need some perspective… If you look at the time when it starts in ’82, the war of Lebanon [when Israeli invaded that country, citing a necessary response to terror attacks from the Palestine Liberation Organization], [it was] a very significant war on every level, for the Israelis, for the PLO, for the region and then ’91, the Gulf war, again a very significant conflict, I kind of like that period, it’s very good for a backdrop.”

Riklis has much to say about Kashua, who is a well known but also polarizing figure in Israeli cultural circles and among the public at large. “He in a way was cultivated, nurtured, handled nicely by the Jews; he became very popular, he had the ability to be funny about things, sometimes cynical, sometimes sarcastic, but people liked that. You know it [Arab Labor] was a different look at Israeli society from his point of view.” I ask about Sayed Kashua’s recent essay saying he could no longer live in the country because of how it treats its Arab minority. “I think, very much like the film, Sayed himself at the moment at least, is very much also in a period of questioning his identity. In that light, Kashua’s self exile from Israel is not the full picture," says Riklis. “Left Israel is probably a little bit too dramatic.” It’s more of a "sabbatical" on Kashua’s part, Riklis feels. “That’s the real truth,” more along the lines of “I can’t be in Israel right now, what the future holds you never know,” he adds.

Audiences, particularly Jewish ones, are liable to be uncomfortable with some of the scenes in Dancing Arabs, which at the very least suggest an ambivalent attitude from Israeli Arabs towards their fellow Jewish citizens. Says Riklis, “If you look at the hard facts, these are people who in 1948 either chose to stay in Israel following the Independence War or left and came back, a variety of things, the whole Palestinian story. Now on the one hand, they’re Israeli citizens and they vote and they have representatives in Parliament. We’re not talking about a minority that’s totally oppressed but, of course, like any minority and because of the complex history and because of the complex situation in the Middle East, they feel and I think probably a lot of Jews would agree, they feel like second-class citizens. The whole notion of serving in the army, that’s part of every Israelis’ upbringing but you can’t expect the Arabs to serve in the army; they’d be fighting [their fellows].”

Tawfeek Barhom and Danielle Kitsis in Dancing Arabs.

One particularly disturbing scene in Dancing Arabs, when Eyad returns to his hometown and witnesses his family’s glee when Saddam Hussein launches missiles, supposedly containing chemical weapons at Israel, at the outset of the first Gulf War in 1990, plays out on several levels, combining hatred of the Israeli Jews (and perceived occupiers) but also evincing pride in an Arab leader (like Nasser during the Six Day War) who is standing up against the Americans (and Israelis) when the Palestinians themselves don’t feel empowered in the same way. That’s “when it gets heavy, the people dancing on the roof while rockets are falling on Tel Aviv, yet you have [Eyad’s] father, who is a smart guy, saying later on, we were so stupid, we thought Saddam (could prevail against the West).” Eyad’s own disgust at what he’s witnessing on the roof adds another layer of nuance to the scene. So does the scene where Eyad returns to Jerusalem and school, says Riklis. “He goes back and has this big scene where he attacks Israeli novelists (like Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua) for the way they portray Arabs, it’s already a stage where he’s totally Israeli, Jewish Israeli, yet he’s an Arab, he has to protect his own identity.”

Another startling scene in the movie has Eyad and Naomi at a club wherein a very scatological / political song is performed, one exhorting Israel to open her legs so as to be impregnated with Palestinian semen. I thought that was made up but Riklis assures me it was from an Israeli rock opera called Mami, “a very popular rock opera in the late 80s.” (Riklis’s son Yonatan, who composed the music of the movie, fronts his own group in that scene.) The scene is provocative because, he says, “it suddenly puts Naomi in an uncomfortable position and Eyad himself [too].” It’s another reminder of the divide between the young lovers.

Yet despite the political underpinnings of his movie, Riklis doesn’t see Dancing Arabs as something that might put apolitical filmgoers off. “It’s very important to make films about the situation. You can’t just sit in Tel Aviv and say they don’t exist or we’ve seen too much on the news, which is not true. We all see things on the news every day but the whole point is to take you beyond the headlines and really dig into the human point of view and that’s what I try to do. I think, on the other hand, what I’m very aware of, is I’m not interested in winning at some festivals and then nobody sees the film. I really try to make films that are accessible, that could be really released worldwide and hopefully reach a wide audience.”

The wide audience that is flocking to this film in Israel includes the Israeli Arab one, heretofore resistant to Riklis’ films, which seems odd considering the topical and relevant subject matter of films like The Syrian Bride and Lemon Tree. “My distributors say okay we’re going to get the Arabs into the cinema this time and it never happens. [But] this time [with Dancing Arabs], thanks to Facebook – a lot of people reach me on Facebook from the Arab sector – [say] this is good, this is our story, we sympathize. I was very pleased to see a large, primarily young Arab audience [at the screenings]. It’s a combination of Sayed, [who is] very well known there and me who has a reputation and the film itself.” He admits he might have wanted an opposite reaction from Jewish audiences, an angry one, with threats to burn down the cinema – he’s joking, of course but part of him likely wanted to court some controversy. “That didn’t happen. People really loved the movie, even those who had issues; it comes from a different place, not from anger. This film raises [some tough] questions and yet the audiences loves this character Eyad. He’s so sympathetic that audiences really love him,” says Riklis. “You root for him.”

A scene from Eran Riklis'  The Syrian Bride (2004).

Though Dancing Arabs does a good job of showcasing Eyad’s relations with the adults, he encounters in his adopted Jewish world, such as his teachers and Edna (Yaël Abecassis), Jonathan's sympathetic mother, it fails, to my mind, to adequately depict how Eyad wins over his fellow students, who eventually come to accept his presence in their school – and lives. Riklis concedes that point. “I agree, in retrospect… [I] should have maybe paid more attention to his roommates and stuff.”

Riklis has a fascinating back story on how Tawfeek Barhom, who plays Eyad, came to him during the casting session. Barhom had a few small credits to his name , at best he’s "totally new,” says Riklis. “He actually sits in front of me [and says] I know you since I was ten years old. I say, 'that’s great, explain.' He says he comes from a small village and 'one morning at 5:30 am I wake up to the sound of trucks, people, director, you sir, and actors and all that.' It turns out I shot The Syrian Bride in his village. And then he said 'every day after school I used to come to the set and I actually fell in love with cinema and decided I want to be an actor. That’s a great story but what was more important is I actually discovered his own personal story was very similar to the story of Eyad, he also went to a boarding school, he also had a love affair with a Jewish kid. It was also important – it sounds bad but it’s not – I was looking for an Arab kid who does not look Arab." That’s key to the film’s plot where Eyad is constantly assumed to be Jewish based on his appearance. Are romantic relationships between Jews and Arabs still taboo, as indicated in the film? Riklis says yes. “I know quite a few, it’s like saying I know a few African Americans, but of course it exists but it’s still taboo.” The film essentially says that it’s easier to be a Jew than an Arab in Israel, though Eyad’s life path is not so clear cut. “It’s a bittersweet situation," adds Riklis.

Yet, despite the warts and all portrayal of much of Israeli society, Dancing Arabs fits squarely into the forthright tradition of Israeli filmmakers being fearless in what they put on film, in a country where the state tafitself usually funds these movies that may not always make Israel look so good. "I always say, [when people ask] in Q and A, how do you get funding for a film like Lemon Tree or whatever? I hate to admit it," says Riklis with a smile, "but I’m very very proud to say we’re a total democracy, once you have a good script, it’s very rare you don’t get funding. Ignoring the politics of Israel, ignoring who’s in power at the moment, it doesn’t really matter from that point of view. I found over the last ten years , maybe a little bit more, even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs even under [right wing minister Avigdor] Lieberman, you say 'oh my god' but actually they’re very supportive. I have been to so many occasions where it’s me and the Israeli ambassador on stage and he has to present me at Lemon Tree or Zaytoun or Dancing Arabs and it doesn’t take a lot of trouble [on his part] because he also realizes I’m just as good an ambassador as he is. And the fact that you come to Western audiences with controversy is only to our credit."

Dancing Arabs opened commercially in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver on May 15.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be starting a new course beginning May 1 entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course will look at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences.

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