Is There Ever a Good Time to Release a Film With 'Arabs' in the Title?

Probably not, which is why Eran Riklis thinks people need to see his new film, 'Dancing Arabs.'

Eitan Riklis

Eran Riklis and I had a minor problem of timing. For a week, we tried to set a time for a phone interview ahead of the long-anticipated Israeli release of his new film, “Dancing Arabs.” The problem was that he was on a coast-to-coast speaking tour in the United States, and our times just didn’t coincide.

“Yes,” he replies with a smile when we finally manage to talk during the director’s short visit to Israel for the premiere, “you can say that this movie definitely had a serious timing problem, but we’ll overcome it.”

“Dancing Arabs” is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by the journalist and writer – and Haaretz columnist – Sayed Kashua, and on his third novel, “Second Person Singular.”

The movie tells the story of Eyad, from his childhood in the village of Tira, to the time he spent at a prestigious Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem. In the background is the first intifada, which broke out in the late 1980s. Eyad is played by Tawfeek Barhom; Daniel Kitzis is Naomi, his Jewish girlfriend. Michael Moshonov gives a heartbreaking performance as Jonathan, a youngster suffering from a neurological disease, and his mother, Edna, is played by Yael Abecassis.

The film was set for release at the beginning of the summer and was to have opened the Jerusalem International Film Festival. However, following Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip and the general security chaos, the producers decided to delay the release. They also modified the film’s title – it’s now called “Dancing Arabs – The Second Son” – in an apparent effort to offset the presumed recoil of potential viewers from anything that raises the specter of “Arabs.”

“When the bodies of the three unfortunate teens were found,” Riklis relates regretfully, in reference to the three Israeli yeshiva students who were killed this summer, “we were three days ahead of launching an advertising campaign for the film, which was to include huge billboards. I immediately called the distributor and we decided to scrap it all. Then came Operation Protective Edge, and now we have the events going on in Jerusalem and the West Bank. We make plans and reality laughs at us all.”

What’s your feeling now, after the commercial release of the film?

“A feeling of something like relief. It was like an especially difficult pregnancy, with the child inside and not able to emerge, with no option even for a C-section. ‘Arabs’ was always a complex word, but in the past few months it’s been overlaid by additional complexity. The summer is over and our situation is worse. My hope is that the film will bring viewers a different feeling of tolerance and sensitivity. I am optimistic.”

Do you think that the repeated postponements of the film’s release will affect its commercial prospects, that people won’t go see it?

“I don’t see any connection between the postponement and whether the audience goes to see it. On the contrary: There is great anticipation among the public. I’m not into making prophecies, but I really think that this is a film that should and can bring a large, broad and diverse audience to movie theaters.”

Looking for a path

There’s a scene in which Eyad is detained by a Border Policeman in the center of Jerusalem because he is speaking Arabic. When the film was shot, that sort of scene was mainly a memory associated with the two intifadas – yet now we find the same situation in the city. Did you imagine that anything like this would happen?

“I have just come back from making the rounds of film festivals in Europe and from studies in the United States – and I can tell you that a sense of fear is on the rise in the world. For example, the Islamic State is very much present in the international discourse ... But in ‘Dancing Arabs I was not out to convey the idea that history is repeating itself. The opposite, in fact: We tried to be very gentle, to offer a realistic portrayal and not to hammer people over the head.

“I am not out to get a message across – I am very leery of messages and prefer to trust the viewers ... I would rather have you leave the theater [audience] thinking about the film and not with the notion that, ‘History is repeating itself, we have to kill all the Arabs.’”

The film is partly in Arabic, but these days the display of even minimal empathy for Arabic or for Arabs as such can generate abuse and threats on the social networks, and sometimes other things. Aren’t you concerned that this will generate antagonism toward the film?

“There have been Arabic-speaking Israeli films that did well, such as my previous film, ‘The Syrian Bride,’ which was extraordinarily successful, and also ‘Ajami.’ And to be accurate: There is more Hebrew than Arabic in ‘Dancing Arabs.’ I believe we have done something innovative here, something the audience will connect with. This is not a film about criminals from Jaffa or about a Palestinian family. It’s about a normative family and a smart kid who’s looking for his path and for his identity.

“I believe in popular cinema, I want to attract an audience, and as I see it, this film closes out a summer of cinematic successes and is the direct continuation of [the hit Israeli movie] ‘Zero Motivation,’ for example. I see no difference between them: Both deal with the Israeli way of life from different directions. One is about female soldiers, the other about Israeli Arabs who live in our midst ... They are part of us. You can’t ignore the story of a nation that lives with you. Why make films at all if we’re going to shy away from difficult subjects?

“I am a devotee of American movies that have an internal rhythm the audience can connect with. Some viewers won’t agree with what they will see on the screen, and that is fine. But at least let them say, ‘I just spent two hours watching a movie, I enjoyed it and it made me think.’”

The first 20 minutes of “Dancing Arabs,” which were shot in Sayed Kashua’s hometown of Tira, in the Triangle – a concentration of Arab towns and villages near the Green Line – come across as high-quality, Israeli-Arab comedy. The audience at the screening I attended roared with laughter at the snappy language, the misunderstandings, the slapstick, and the boy who declares, “My father works as a terrorist,” in class. It’s only afterward, when the character of Eyad moves to Jerusalem, that the atmosphere starts to darken and questions of identity surface.

“The opening is intended to draw you into the film, to ‘neutralize’ all your objections,” Riklis explains. “I wanted viewers to like Eyad and want to accompany him. Gradually the smile disappears – I know some people who cried in the film. The nonstandard dramatic structure aims to make the viewers fond of the protagonist, so they will root for him to the end.”

How did you first connect with Sayed Kashua?

“The producers approached me after a long period in which the project didn’t get off the ground. I read the material, I laughed, I was moved, I loved it, and I embarked on a long road of working with Sayed on a final version of the script. The idea was to make a movie that would move people and deal with personal issues against a social-national background, with universal implications. We wanted a film that would reach a large audience and appeal to people emotionally, in all ways.”

How do you go about adapting a book into a film?

“The challenge here was complex, because it combines two books, large parts of which are based on the life of Sayed and his family. I came from the ‘outside,’ which is an advantage in this case, because I could examine things in a slightly more objective way – see what the film needs and what’s called for dramatically. In the end, the characters take on new, independent lives as cinematic figures, and the plot unfolds according to the needs of a dramatic and cinematic structure, involving pace and timing and gut feelings about what will or will not work on the screen.”

How intensively was Kashua involved? Did you work out the plot together?

“Sayed wrote the screenplay, and obviously I as the director and he as the screenwriter worked together to create something we are both happy with. Once the work on the script ended, my work as director per se began – a perfectly normal process in filmmaking.”

At the moment, Sayed is spending a year in Illinois, and what emerges from his weekly column in Haaretz is great despair and no desire to return to Israel. That’s very different from his personal experience as portrayed in the film, where he wants only to be accepted by Israeli society.

“So you’re saying that this is a nostalgic movie. [Laughs] He has anxieties, just as I do and you, too, presumably. But – and I know this will irk him – I wouldn’t bet against his coming back, despite his recent columns. Things change, the world changes. He has built up a career here, and the film is one variation of the story. He’s there, I’m here now, but I promise you he will return.”

The Israel Academy of Film and Television didn’t pay enough attention to the film. Why is that?

“In 2010, I won five Ophirs [the Israeli Oscar] for ‘The Human Resources Manager’ (for best film, direction, screenplay, supporting actress and soundtrack), and I had no complaints. The members of the academy viewed and chose from among excellent films, and they decided as they did.”

‘Reflection of life’

During the production process, did hesitations arise about whether the Israeli audience is mature enough for a film with this content?

“The Israeli audience is mature enough to watch good Israeli cinema. And this is a good Israeli film – moving, funny, sad, touching, unafraid to address complex and sensitive issues. We don’t live in a bubble, we live in a real world with all its complexities and problems of different kinds. This film is a reflection of life, of a situation, of truth. At the same time, it provides an emotional experience for two hours, which I hope will linger afterward as well. A movie aims to stir the heart and the mind, to engage them, thrill them, to create a buzz. That’s what this film will do. I believe in personal, sophisticated filmmaking aimed at a broad audience. There’s no contradiction between the two – on the contrary: If you respect your viewers and send them on a riveting cinematic journey, they will emerge from it deeply moved and will be grateful to you.”

What has been the reception at film festivals?

“We were fortunate enough to take part in several important festivals, and the experiences were tremendous. After a modest but very moving premiere in Jerusalem (after we cancelled the mass outdoor screening in Sultan’s Pool), the film was screened for an enthusiastic audience of 8,000 in the Piazza Grande of Locarno, at one of the oldest and biggest film festivals in the world. The responses were very warm – in the two days after the screening, Tawfeek Barhom, Yael Abecassis and I couldn’t walk in the street without being stopped to have our picture taken or give an autograph.

“From there we went on to Telluride, in Colorado, one of the most prestigious film festivals, and the American audience reacted with great enthusiasm. It was the same in London, Sao Paulo, the Hamptons and Montpellier, and it will happen in dozens more festivals, and especially when the film is released worldwide early next year.”

What reactions did you get personally?

“The film was shown in Israel to diverse audiences and in many preview screenings, and the immediate responses were particularly warm and enthusiastic. The film plays on all the senses: It’s a comedy, it’s a drama, the acting is superb, it is well-paced, it has terrific music, it’s a love story, a story of friendship, and it offers a complex take on the Israeli society. The audience connects with all those elements and responds to them. Of course, I get innumerable responses via email and Facebook, and so far they have all been affectionate and connected to the film and its themes. But I have to point out that if [certain offensive] comments ... show up on the film’s Facebook page, which I run, I delete them immediately. I have neither patience nor tolerance for benighted opinions.”

What’s your view of contemporary Israeli cinema?

“Israeli cinema is connected to its audience more than ever before, and that is the goal. Movies are made to reach people, to stir feelings and generate discussion. At the moment this is working in Israel, after we went through all kinds of periods in terms of the connection between Israeli filmmakers and the audience. Trust and distrust have given way to a wild and unexpected rate of filmmaking. The question marks are always very large, but that’s part of the game.

“No one really knows why and when a film takes off – particularly if it makes you think and asks you to exercise all your senses, and not just to sit there and laugh and get home with no memory of what you saw. Good movies continue to reside in the memory and the soul – that’s why filmmakers like me make them, and that’s why people buy tickets and spend two hours in the dark.”