Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2015 Toronto Jewish Film Festival. For more information visit tjff.com and follow TJFF on Twitter at @tjfftweets.
Dancing Arabs (2014)
Dir. Eran Riklis
The storyline of Dancing Arabs is fraught with political and ethnic tension from both perspectives along the Arab-Israeli divide, but a likeable cast and an undercurrent of humor keep things from overheating. Palestinian novelist-screenwriter Sayed Kashua and Israeli director Eran Riklis depict a young Arab’s coming of age in 1980s and 1990s Israel, specifically as he integrates into a prestigious school and finds love and friendship amidst cultural misunderstandings and intolerance. As played as a preteen by Razi Gabareen and as an older, sensitive teenager by Tawfeek Barhom, Eyad is the youngest, cleverest son of a politically rebellious father and warmly supportive mother, gaining early accolades for answering a challenging riddle posed on TV. Such a lightly comedic milieu, in which a little kid maneuvers an oversized rooftop antenna and a teacher blatantly adjusts his politically-sensitive lesson depending on whether the school principal is within earshot, extends through Eyad’s childhood and is only slightly tweaked when he goes off to boarding school in Jerusalem. In addition to the common trials of making friends and getting through classes, he chafes at having to represent an entire set of people, adapting to Hebrew from Arabic and being fed what he perceives as the Israeli slant on literature and current events. As he gradually finds his place, he constructs a few worthwhile bonds: one with an adorable Jewish girl (Daniel Katsis) who nonetheless divides her public and private lives; another, perhaps even stronger one with a sardonic student with muscular dystrophy (Michael Moshonov) and his isolated mother (Yaël Abecassis). Both of these relationships soon become infinitely more complicated and resentful as the real-life Arab-Israeli situation, with all of its attendant history, rears its ugly head, the political bleeding into the personal.
The serio-comic tone of the film up to this point sours into a still effective but much more melodramatic one. When the first Gulf War breaks out, Eyad briefly returns home to his proud family, but quickly his secretive cross-cultural romance falls prey to his girlfriend’s family’s prejudices, forcing him to leave school against his prideful father’s wishes so she can be allowed to return. His best friend’s condition worsens, and his mother and Eyad make a fateful decision that gives the film its balder alternate title, A Borrowed Identity. Even as Riklis and Kasua rush to the narrative finish line, it’s to their, and the cast’s, credit that the movie’s novelistic and naturalistic qualities never waver. German cinematographer Michael Wiesweg facilitates a number of swooping crane shots that place the characters within their
wider environments, and there are some noticeably clever if on-the-nose framings, including one with a sticker on a pay phone that warns any Arab readers: “Don’t you even think about a Jewish girl.” Eyad never follows that command; instead, the hard lesson in assimilation he learns by the end of Dancing Arabs lays bare the costs that ages-old animosities extract from even their youngest and most hopeful victims.
It Takes a Shtetl: Leonard Nimoy’s Boston (2014)
Dir. Adam Nimoy
Leonard Nimoy’s death this past February marked a time to reflect not just on the actor’s influence on popular culture but also on his wider heritage and legacy. Last year, in conjunction with PBS station WGBH, his son Adam took a step in that direction by making the half-hour documentary It Takes a Shtetl, a leisurely, nostalgic travelogue of the actor’s adolescent haunts in his hometown of Boston. The elder Nimoy narrates his childhood growing up in the city’s diversely European immigrant neighborhood of the West End, recounting typical summer jobs and his burgeoning love of theater. The film is chock full of distinctively and proudly working class anecdotes. Personal photographs and home movies illuminate the past and augment Nimoy’s heartfelt recounted memories. Beyond his own recollections, though, lies a more critical if superficial portrait of Boston then and now.
By talking about the past and visiting the sites as they are today, father and son contrast the close-knit enclave of immigrants settled in the West End during the early part of the 20th century with the commercial and residential results of the still controversial urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s. Few locations remain more or less as they had been, with other places, most notably the Nimoys’ apartment, long gone and only remembered through photographs and stories. However, such an investigation into the city’s mid-century politics is only a brief detour in the short film’s overly sentimental journey. Nimoy’s warmth and obvious affection for Boston is engaging even to those unfamiliar with his famous role on Star Trek, which becomes the climactic triumph of a local boy made good. Adam Nimoy announced in March that he will produce and direct a documentary called For the Love of Spock, examining the legacy of his father’s iconic character. It will provide a fitting companion to this slight but sincere walk down memory lane, featuring one of the city’s recently departed and more under-appreciated sons.