Eran Riklis — one of Israel’s foremost film-makers — talks to Screen’s Wendy Mitchell about his latest film Dancing Arabs, and his ambitions to connect with a global audience

For director Eran Riklis, Dancing Arabs (which world premieres at the Jerusalem Film Festival this week) has that magical mix of emotional, character-driven storytelling set against a politically
relevant backdrop. “It has this blend between an issue film — on every level: social, emotional, political — and yet it’s an accessible story,” the director says. “I want to reach a wide audience locally and globally.”

The story, adapted from Sayed Kashua’s 2002 bestselling novel, follows Eyad, an Arab boy from the town of Tira whose parents send him to a prestigious Jewish boarding school in Jerusalem. He struggles to maintain his identity while also trying to fit in — and strikes up a controversial romance with a Jewish girl.

“The whole complexity of the Middle East is embodied, and on the other hand he’s just a young guy trying to survive in the world and make decisions about who is he going to be,” Riklis says.

Though the film is specific to Israel, he does see how the situation is more universal. “It could be a British Indian kid who is deciding how does he blend in, or how does he keep his Indian values? That’s what the story is about, he lives in this country but he’s an outsider. The big question is, how do you maintain identity while opening up to an ever-changing world?”

And, refreshingly, Riklis says it is very much “a feelgood film”.

“For me personally and as the film-maker, at the end of the day, it’s not about upsetting anyone it’s about getting people to think and rethink their points in life. I want them to say, ‘I enjoyed what I just saw.’ The title itself might raise some eyebrows, as it refers to slang about Arabs dancing during the 1991 Gulf War. “Twentysomething years later it sounds naïve and not a good choice,” the director acknowledges. “But in the film it’s almost funny and in fact it’s about the dance of life, waltzing through life.”

Notably, and unusually, the theatrical poster has both Hebrew and Arabic writing on it, an important distinction for Riklis.

Continuing themes

The project had been kicking around in development for several years, at various points with foreign directors attached, before producers brought it to Riklis. “I thought, ‘This is my kind of material,’” Riklis remembers, saying the story reminded him of his own Lemon Tree or The Syrian Bride. “I fell in love with the characters and the story.”

He sees the film’s approach and themes as fitting in with his body of work, which also includes internationally acclaimed features such as The Human Resources Manager and Zaytoun. “I always try to focus on the individual at a point of crisis or interaction with social issues.”

Riklis then spent a year working with Kashua on the script: “He is a novelist and he writes for television. He knew what films are about but he’d never written for a theatrical film, so I brought my experience dealing with the big screen.”

“For Sayed it was a triple challenge, parts of it are autobiographical, based on his own books and he is the writer of the script,”Riklis says, paying tribute to the writer.

“Finding the funny” was crucial for the pair. “People are curious how you blend comedy with drama. On that level, I’m a student of Italian films in a way. You go to a funeral in morning and a wedding in the evening and it works. Here it was even more of a challenge — it starts out as almost pure comedy. Then there are five minutes when you smile, then you cry. It’s a crazy journey. It was interesting for me to test the limits of how far you can go with changing moods within 100 minutes.”

Riklis could count on some of the region’s acting royalty, including Yael Abecassis, Michael Moshonov, Ali Suliman, Danielle Kitzis, Marlene Bajali, Laëtitia Eïdo and Norman Issa.

Yet the film would hinge on the casting of the twentysomething Tawfeek Barhom. Remarkably, Barhom had been a
12-year-old boy when Riklis shot The Syrian Bride in his village of Ein Rafa, and he had walked around the set and fallen in love with cinema.

The role is not autobiographical but could almost be — Barhom is an Arab boy who was sent to a Jewish boarding school, so he could draw on his own experiences. “It’s almost Ken Loach territory; it’s authentic casting, it’s the real thing, the real kid from the real environment.” And what guidance did the director offer? “I said, ‘Be yourself, you’re very close to this character.’ It could more or less be about him with similar experiences with friendships, feeling racism or mistreatment, having young love affairs.”

The production journey

Financing Dancing Arabs was “a journey,” as always for Riklis and the producing team. He is no stranger to co-productions, especially with Germany and France (his last film Zaytoun was the first Israel-UK co-production). The project reunites the producers of The Syrian Bride and Lemon Tree: Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre of France’s MACT, Michael Eckelt of Germany’s Riva, and Bettina Brokemper of Heimatfilm along with Chilik Michaeli, Avraham Pirchi and Tami Leon of production company United Channels Movies (UCM), Israel.
“We have really mastered the complexity of how you maintain integrity storywise and yet match all the points for funding,” says Riklis.

Even with a back catalogue of acclaimed films, he is still pitching each one afresh. “It’s about surprising investors with something that’s really new. Also I feel I have a long-term relationship with certain backers in Europe.”

Shooting in Jerusalem is natural for Riklis, who was born there but now lives in Tel Aviv. “It’s the capital of Israel but it’s also a mixed city with a huge Arab population. Coming to Jerusalem it’s built into the story that it’s part of the crazy mixture of cultural elements,” he says. “I sit home at the west side of the city but I still hear the morning prayers of the east side. It brings you the whole complexity of the situation.”

He says mayor Nir Barkat’s support means the city is now very film friendly. Also, “Jerusalem Film Fund is a major change in the landscape — not just financially but also it’s a local fund that has the city in mind and they help you do everything to shoot in the city — it’s beyond financial help.”

For the scenes set in Tira, the production shot in Kafr Qasim, also the site of a 1956 massacre of 49 villagers. That is something Riklis says he could feel on the ground, while also feeling a welcome from the villagers. “The massacre is still very present, there are monuments all over town. On the other hand you feel they are excited for me coming to shoot a film there. It’s those moments I get very optimistic on the region. On a one-to-one level, on an eye level, it¹s about respecting and being respected. And it¹s about honouring tradition and being open minded.”

“I often take chances on subjects that are not easy,” he adds. After studying in the US and at the UK’s National Film and Television School, he notes, “My training as a filmmaker was to be smart, be challenging and yet there is an audience out there.
I always remind myself there is an audience in a local market but also globally. If the film works, people know deep down you don’t need to understand all the nuances. This could be a story set almost anywhere. The key for me is to really not only win a festival or two, it’s about reaching as wide an audience as possible.”

Dancing Arabs (Isr-Fr-Ger)
Director Eran Riklis
Screenwriter Sayed Kashua (based on his book)
Producers Chilik Michaeli, Michael Eckelt, Antoine de Clermont-Tonnerre, Avraham Pirchi, Tami Leon, Bettina Brokemper
Associate producers Moshe Edery, Leon Edery, Simon Ofenloch
Cast Tawfeek Barhom, Yael Abecassis, Michael Moshonov, Ali Suliman, Danielle Kitzis, Marlene Bajali, Laëtitia Eïdo, Razi Gabareen, Norman Issa
Supporters Israel Film Fund, Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein, alongside The Jerusalem Film and Television Fund, Israel Lottery Council for Culture and Arts, ZDF-ARTE, Eurimages, CNC, Canal Plus, CINE+ and New Lineo Cinema
Israeli distribution United King
World sales The Match Factory