Dancing Arabs and The Kindergarten Teacher

Dancing Arabs, Eran Riklis's latest film, opens up The TJFF on April 30.

Two of the hottest, most anticipated titles at this spring’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival deal with unique students and their tumultuous experiences at Jewish schools.

Dancing Arabs, based on a bestselling novel by Sayed Kashua, tells the story of a brainy Palestinian teen who gets a scholarship to a prestigious Israeli academy. The Kindergarten Teacher, from award-winning director Nadav Lapid, is about a lonely teacher and the prodigal pupil she yearns to nurture and inspire.

While Dancing Arabs opens the festival on April 30, The Kindergarten Teacher (playing May 5 at Empress Walk and May 9 at Innis Town Hall) is more of a must-see. Regardless, both are strong Israeli dramas that are well worth your time.

The dancing Arabs of the former’s title are a reference to how Arab citizens in Israel must constantly dodge social and political obstacles. The drama focuses on the teenage Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His father, Salah (Ali Suliman), is proud of his son for being accepted into a top Israeli high school.

“I want you to be better than them,” Salah tells his son, referring to the Israelis, “in every way!”

Soon after his arrival at the academy, though, Eyad realizes he is the only Arab in his class. He tries to hide his past in an attempt not to offend or attract unwanted attention. Tension arises when he begins a romantic relationship with Naomi (Danielle Kitzis), a Jewish student whose parents would never approve of Eyad.

Dancing Arabs is the latest film from director Eran Riklis (Lemon Tree, Zaytoun), and the drama benefits from a uniformly terrific cast. Barhom, a relatively unknown, anchors the film. He is especially magnetic in the scenes when Eyad directly confronts the school’s stereotyping of Israel’s enemies.

Kashua, who based the novel on some of his own experiences in Israel, also penned the screenplay. The film benefits from his sharp observations of how alienated Arabs feel in the land. Some of the best scenes in Dancing Arabs are between Eyad and Jonathan (Michael Moshanov), a Jewish friend with muscular dystrophy. The two boys bond over their outsider status at school.

While the film has some pointed social commentary about Jewish-Arab relations, Eyad too rarely voices his anger. One gets the feeling that Riklis and Kashua dulled some of the novel’s more provocative moments. 

Regardless, Dancing Arabs is a well-acted drama that should resonate with audiences looking for an honest depiction of Arab-Israeli life.

Meanwhile, for Torontonians looking for something more daring, The Kindergarten Teacher will likely be one of the festival’s most talked-about films. It deserves comparison with the best films from art-house directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Two Days, One Night). 

A hit at the Cannes Film Festival last year, Nadav Lapid’s drama focuses on Nira (Sarit Larry), a kindergarten teacher bored with her job and her husband. However, when she finds out that a new student, five-year-old Yoav (Avi Shnaidman), can recite original, startlingly good poetry, she tries to mentor the young prodigy.

Lapid’s film begins as an inspirational drama and slowly morphs into an unsettling thriller. Larry gives a tour de force performance. Even though her character becomes increasingly hard to like, her layered performance ensures one can understand her sadness and sympathize with Nira’s journey.

Meanwhile, the young Shnaidman is outstanding in his film debut: natural, nuanced and completely believable. Despite the kindergarten setting, the film contains nudity and sexual content, and is not suitable for children.

Much of the film’s success is due to its realist esthetic. Cinematographer Shai Goldman shoots much of the film by placing the camera on the same level as the children in Nira’s class. Told from this perspective, the story becomes more intimate. These close-up observations bottle up both the playfulness and the raw emotions in the classroom, making it difficult to look away.

At other times, we look at the world from Yoav’s point of view. When he swings upside down in the playground, we notice the overwhelming beauty of the sky and trees he sees. The purity and innocence of these moments contrast with the stark realism of the scenes from Nira’s perspective, showing the distance between the characters.

Lapid and his crew drain many of the sets – the classroom, Nira’s apartment – of colour. This allows for Yoav’s powerful poems to have more vitality, since he projects them in such sad, empty rooms.

Many will be disturbed and surprised by some of the plot turns in the film’s second half. The ending should spark a lot of conversation. The Kindergarten Teacher is hypnotic, thought-provoking filmmaking. 


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