Dancing with the Enemy

So, yesterday, after the show, I went to watch the second of four films offered by this year’s Madison Israel Film Festival, Dancing at Jaffa, a documentary directed by Hilla Medalia and starring Pierre Fontaine and Yvonne Marceau. For someone who is a huge fan of documentary films, of ballroom dance, of human interest stories, and of Israel, I have to say that I was let down.

Dancing at Jaffa documents the true story of an intercultural experiment aimed at uniting two groups of children in a very unusual way: through a ballroom dance class. French ballroom dance champion Pierre Fontaine returns to Jaffa, Israel – a suburb of Tel Aviv and the city of his birth – to see how he can best contribute to the people of a divided city in a divided nation. The idea of a ballroom dance class is brilliant, and especially the way he did it, by making Jewish boys dance with Palestinian girls, and Palestinian boys with Jewish girls. Of course, the program does not run smoothly; the scenes where the children meet for the first time are wonderfully awkward, and their reactions are candid and honest. Slowly, though, the resistance to look at, to touch, and to dance with the partner of the opposite sex and religion melts away, and by the end, they all (well, most of them) dance in a competition in front of a crowd of parents, family, and friends from both communities. Other than Pierre, two of the trajectories are those of Noor, a chubby Palestinian girl who can be either incredibly shy and withdrawn, avoiding everyone or hostile and belligerent, attacking and scaring everyone; and that of Lois and Alaa. We do not learn about Noor’s partner, but we do learn that Alaa comes from a very poor Palestinian home at which Lois is shocked, and that Lois’s thing is that she was fathered by a sperm donor, which prompts an adorable scene where she tries to explain to her partner what a sperm bank is, and then is followed by an awkwardly graphic scene where Lois’s mother gives Alaa the intimate details of her procedure and of the reproductive process. She’s a wily one, that lady. Noor’s arc basically ends with her in control of her emotions and actually proving to be a very talented dancer, and Lois and Alaa take us out with a scene where they row Alaa’s father’s boat and it’s all very Hand in Hand and gooey as the credits roll.

The concept of the film is great; cute kids and a fun project. If the synopsis weren’t enough, the trailers made me want to jump right up and buy a copy of the movie for myself. However, as I mentioned before, it was not a cakewalk to sit through.

Okay, disclaimer: granted, I missed the first 20 minutes because I was still at the theatre finishing up with the costumes, but for an almost 2-hour-long movie, missing 20 minutes shouldn’t be that big of a deal, and I was able to get right into it when I walked in. The main criticisms I had were the treatment of ballroom dance, the character development, and the camera work/filming style.

Okay, first, the ballroom dance. Obviously, I was not expecting to watch children do ballroom for two hours straight, because that would be boring, but they could have shown more of that and fewer tracking shots of school buses and checkpoints. The only dances that I counted were merengue (which is not something I know much about), rumba (a different style than what I’m used to, though, and tango. There was a tiny bit of foxtrot and waltz in the scenes where Pierre and his American partner, Yvonne Marceau, were demonstrating for the class, but they didn’t show them teaching it. It’s obvious that the children were not professional dancers or even actors, but I felt like I was either watching them dance the same steps over and over in different settings or just watching them talk about their lives. There was a lot left on the cutting room floor.

This leads into character development. I found it odd that almost nothing was mentioned about Noor’s partner; that would have been a great counterpoint to Lois/Alaa. It is clear that we were supposed to root for Noor, but she seemed like a whiner up until the very last moments. Unlike Lois/Alaa, the Noor scenes always seemed to be about someone other than Noor, and Noor’s relationship with that person (Noor’s mother, Noor’s teachers, Noor’s classmate, Pierre). Also, some of the adult characters were frustrating. Pierre seemed a little full of himself at times; Lois’s mother, while funny, clearly attempted to commandeer a documentary that was not about her; and there was something that one of the teachers said to a class that I thought was incredibly harsh and unwarranted. Also, there were like five different schools, and so many children that we barely knew anyone else’s name by the end.

Finally, the camera work. Pick a style and stick with it. You want to do it as if it’s a real movie, with no fourth-wall breaking? Do it that way. You want heavy confessional action? Do it with all the characters, or at least not just Pierre. And for goodness sakes, decide if you want your voice in it – there was one scene in the Palestinian neighborhood where they were talking to Alaa and some of the other boys, and it was clear that the prompts/questions were coming from the person holding the camera.

I would give it a 2 out of 5 star rating, and that’s only because I just love ballroom dance.

And hello to another six continent day, the first after a few! So, just who danced in today? North America (Canada and USA), South America (Paraguay and Colombia), Europe (UK, Hungary, France, Netherlands, and Czech Republic), Asia (India, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia), Africa (Burkina Faso), and Oceania (Australia and Papua New Guinea).


Flying Solo

Tonight, I watched two hours about survivors. No, it did not involve immunity challenges, tribal councils, or Jeff Probst’s “the tribe has spoken.” It was the premiere of a documentary I found out about last week. Entitled Sole Survivor, it documents plane crash sole survivor George Lamson Jr.’s quest to find and connect with other sole survivors of plane crashes – according to the documentary, there are fourteen people currently living who share this unusual experience.

Here’s a rundown of who he found:

  • Jim Polehinke of Kentucky, a pilot who survived a plane crash in his home state
  • Bahia Bakari of Paris, France, a teenager who survived a plane crash in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Comoros
  • Cecelia Cichan of New York City, a woman who survived a plane crash in Michigan as a young girl

Each of them recounted different experiences. George Lamson, Jr., who is reaching out to seek contact and help others. His daughter Hannah plays a large role in the film, and gets more screen time than the other survivors. Jim Polehinke lost both of his legs in the crash, in addition to passengers. As a pilot, he feels guilty for causing their deaths even though there were not enough traffic controllers on duty to help guide the plane. Seeing the trial which basically gave him all the blame and only a minor amount of compensation was shocking. There’s obviously no system in place on how to address reparations in court, simply because there have been so few cases. Bahia Bakari, whose accident was in the recent past (five years ago), lost her mother, but also spoke publicly and published a book about herself. This self-promotion was unique to her. In the beginning of the movie, she appears with a French diplomat who flew her back to France after the crash, and things are very awkward. I don’t know if it’s race, age, or gender, but she looks completely uninterested when on the screen with him, unlike with George, for whom she comes out of her shell despite the obvious language barrier. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cecelia Cichan has been completely silent about her experience. This film was the first time she spoke publicly, now a twenty-something who lives in New York. For someone talking about this moment that has defined her life, she’s remarkably unassuming about it, even opening with comments that she feels inferior to people like Bakari, who floated on airplane wreckage for hours without a life vest, or Juliane Koepke, another sole survivor who kept herself alive in the jungle for several days before finding civilization, whereas she – as a four-year-old – did nothing and was just found and sent to a hospital. That made me cringe a little; part of me wants to say, “give yourself some credit,” but the other part of me realizes that she was shielded from this by her family for most of her life (smart move) and that formulating something to say so publicly when she is still discovering her own identity is probably one of the most uncomfortable sensations; knowing that millions of people are going to see this and you’ve kept it private for all these years brings even more pressure to the event.

My favorite part of the film was George and Hannah’s journey from Reno to meet Bahia and her father Kassim in Paris. Even though George most likely has flown since the plane crash, back in the 1970s when he was a teenager, just watching him do the mundane acts of walking down the aisle and sitting in the seat are eerie, imagining all the nightmares he must have had. From the moment George and Bahia meet, they have a connection that’s really striking. The father-daughter connections seemed a little producer-forced at times, but even so, they are very touching scenes to watch. According to the film’s closing moments, George has invited Bahia and Kassim to come visit them in Reno.

What bugged me but intrigued me at the same time was how several of the secondary characters came off as ignorant or clueless. Obviously, the French diplomat who Bahia Bakari constantly refutes seems to be on his high horse, as well as the chairman of the Jim Polehinke trial, who comes off as a complete jerk. Yes, the NTSB’s job is to establish a cause in order to move on, don’t say asinine and mildly insulting things to the survivor’s face and the face of the wife of the deceased pilot. The translator in the scenes where George is in France seems out of place as well. The relatives of the survivors of the Michigan crash are respectful, but it’s clear that they largely do not have a connection with Cecelia Cichan and speak of her without having any more information than the rest of the world.

Overall, this was definitely worth every minute, despite a lot of filler. Thinking critically, it makes perfect sense that no two stories would be alike. But they all seem to be willing, on level, to share their stories communally in a way that they wouldn’t do alone. Even Cecelia Cichan, who did not appear alongside the others, cooperated with this project when it would have been just as easy to say no; probably something about the auspices of the framing of her story among others, creating a synthesis where the focus would be on her just as much as it would not be on her – thereby accomplishing, in effect, George Lamson’s goal of establishing community.