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Film Q&A: The Israeli director of Dancing Arabs on why he doesn’t see his work as political

HAMILTON, APRIL 30, 2015 .. DANCING ARABS.. Film Director Eran Riklis whose film "Dancing Arabs" is the opening night film of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on April 30, The film will have it's general public release in a couple of weeks. Riklis poses in the offices of Mongrel Media, on April 30, 2015. Glenn Lowson photo for The Globe and Mail Director Eran Riklis’s film Dancing Arabs is opening under its original name in Canada. Distributors in France, Spain, Germany and the United States changed its name. Basically, once it started moving around internationally, I encountered almost weekly discussions with distributors. The French were saying: After Charlie Hebdo and all that, there’s no way we’re going to have Dancing Arabs – it might insult the Arabs. So they call it My Son. Spain, same thing. My Sons. Germany? My Heart Dances – [it sounds] like a musical. In the U.S.? A Borrowed Identity.

glenn lowson The Globe and Mail

At first, it just looked like bad timing. Last summer, Israeli director Eran Riklis was gearing up for the world premiere of his new film, Dancing Arabs, at the Jerusalem Film Festival, when the latest Gaza War broke out. Citing security concerns, the festival programmers cancelled the screening. Which is a shame, since the film has little to do with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: It's a sensitive tale of a teenaged Arab boy making his way in an elite Jewish prep school during the late 1980s and early '90s. But, as Riklis noted during a recent interview, tripwires are everywhere.

Why is the film being released under its original title in Canada, but almost nowhere else?

Basically, once it started moving around internationally, I encountered almost weekly discussions with distributors. The French were saying: After Charlie Hebdo and all that, there's no way we're going to have Dancing Arabs – it might insult the Arabs. So they call it My Son. Spain, same thing. My Sons. Germany? My Heart Dances – [it sounds] like a musical. In the U.S.? A Borrowed Identity.

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But how could it be insulting? It's based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Sayed Kashua – an Arab writer – and he wrote the screenplay.

A taxi driver in Tel Aviv asked me, 'What do you do?' 'Oh, I'm in film, I have a new film coming out, Dancing Arabs.' 'Oh, okay. Well, if they're dancing, I'm not worried.'

Because they're not bombing?

They're not bombing – that's the logic. And I think, worldwide, even in sophisticated kinds of environments, the word 'Arabs' poses a problem at the moment. Maybe it always has.

To be fair, even the trailer has a terrible sense of foreboding.

The film manages, I think, most of the time to avoid the clichés. That was quite a struggle, because you're fighting a lot of expectations. People expect violence in a story like this, and there's no violence.

Is it difficult to labour under the expectations people have of Israeli filmmakers?

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You know, on my e-mail signature, it says, 'Based in Tel Aviv, working with the world.' I was born in Israel, grew up in the States, lived in Brazil for three years, I went to an American high school – and London later for film studies for four years. Yet, I managed somehow to get a sense of being totally connected to Israel on almost every level. Beyond emotionally, physically. It's really kind of understanding the logic – the illogic in things, mostly.

I've seen various films that were shot in Israel by foreign directors – you get somebody who comes from outside, and actually it can be a revelation because he discovers things that maybe the locals can't see. But too often it's superficial, he comes in and does a film that has nothing to do with the reality.

Sure, it's like parachute journalism. Something happens, and a reporter from somewhere else comes in and they have no idea what they're looking at.

Exactly. So I think for me it became a bit of a mission, a kind of responsibility toward my audiences, wherever they are, to really be able to say, what you just saw is 95-per-cent correct – even though it's creative, and I'm free to interpret the way I want.

Do you see yourself as a political filmmaker?

Whenever I'm asked, 'Are you a political filmmaker?' I always deny it, I always get people kind of laughing, smiling, but I really believe that. I'm not a political filmmaker, I don't have an agenda. But I never have the frustration of saying I wish I could just do something that's 'pure art,' because I don't believe in that.

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I think especially today, I think all the great artists are connected to what's happening around them.

I don't see myself being hyperambitious about doing a nice romantic comedy that's set in Tel Aviv – even though I'd love to see one, and they're made all the time. But it's not me. I can't live amongst, within, next to the Conflict, and sort of say it doesn't exist.

The Conflict remains largely on the margins of Dancing Arabs. Still, Eyad, the boy, is the son of a former terrorist, and even as he falls in love with a Jewish girl and becomes the model Arab Israeli citizen – parroting the Jewish version of the region's history – he is hemmed in, humiliated. He's stopped and carded by the military, harassed by other teens. He is constantly being reminded that he's different.

You know, when I first met Sayed Kashua – he's an Arab from a small village, exactly like the story, he moved to Jerusalem, he has a popular television show – and when I first met him, he was in a totally Jewish neighbourhood, he was actually saying to me, 'You know, my son doesn't speak Arabic,' and I could see he's swept away in the success of being very popular amongst the Jews, and then waking up one morning and suddenly saying, my God, my son doesn't speak Arabic. And then the war came, last summer, in Gaza and all that – and then suddenly, you know, you are still an Arab.

Yet the film isn't didactic; Eyad could be any teenager – actually anyone – whose identity is in flux. We all play with our identity, put different faces forward, depending on the context.

Any kid – in America, Canada, Brazil, China – can identify with this, because he changes identities almost every day, because of a teacher, because of a schoolmate, because of a bully, because of a girl. It's really about the kind of codes of existence in a very oppressive world, let's say. On every level – social, political, family –

– that's judging all the time.

Yeah. That's judging all the time.

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