Israeli documentary filmmaker Hilla Medalia has captured the beginnings of a unique programme designed to bring Jewish and Palestinian children together - step-by-step. Ahead of its screenings at the Documentary Edge Film Festival, she talks to James Croot about making Dancing in Jaffa.
The first time Hilla Medalia encountered Pierre Dulaine it was in the form of Antonio Banderas.
The Spanish actor was rather bizarrely cast as the Palestinian-born, half-Irish ballroom dancing teacher in the 2006 drama Take the Lead. Dulaine's story and successful US schools' "dancing classroom" programme (starting with 30 New York kids in 1994, it has now grown to teaching 70,000 children annually across the nation) had also been explored in 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, but his ultimate dream was to take that programme back "home" and help bring Palestinian and Israeli children together - on the dance floor. That's where the much younger Israeli documentarian came in.
"It had taken six years for Pierre to basically convince the Ministry of Education and school districts to approve the programme for schools in Israel," says Medalia down the phone line from her home in Tel Aviv. "He then called the producer of Take the Lead and she convinced him to make a film about it and then found me."
But although the completed documentary Dancing in Jaffa is now winning audience acclaim and critical plaudits around the world, was Medalia ever worried that Dulaine's plan might not succeed?
"Even if it wasn't successful it was still a good story. There were moments when I thought 'he's not going to be able to do it', but really I wasn't worried about the film, I just got really involved with Pierre and the kids and the future of all of us here.
"Pierre is an amazing person. Despite everything that happens, he wants to look to the future. He is very determined and he has so much experience."
Medalia says one of the toughest challenges for her was choosing which children in the programme to focus her attentions on. "Before we could film a kid in school we had to have approval from the school district, from the principal, the teachers, the parents and the kids. Kids like film, so that was never a problem. We did however have parents who let us film, but then when the programme started and they discovered what it was about, they didn't their kids to participate. There's a bit in the film where one mother actually says dancing is against Islam!"
That's where Dulaine's charisma and persistence paid dividends, she says.
"When he met resistance, particularly from parents, he often went to their homes to speak to them. Because he's from there [Dulaine's family fled the country when he was four], and speaks Arabic, they see him as a model of success."
Medalia describes the shooting schedule as "very intense" with 11 weeks in the classroom and three weeks filming the kids at home during the Passover and Easter break. "Then came the editing," she laughs.
Six audience awards from film festivals around the globe are testament to Medalia's skill and Dulaine's inspired idea. "When you make a film, you never know how an audience is going to react. What's amazing and surprising to me is how well it has been received in places like France and Taiwan. I guess it's partially because the issues are global - racism and prejudice exist in every community. But you can also see the effect the programme has on kids' self-confidence. It has been incredible to see the transformation of some of them."
And word of Dulaine's programme has spread across Israel. Since filming finished it has expanded from five to 13 schools and is growing each semester. "There's a director managing it now and it has started in other cities like Haifa."
For Medalia herself it has been a very busy year with documentaries on two very different subjects completed. "I had a film premiere at Sundance in January about internet addiction in China [Web Junkies] and I've got a film premiering at Cannes, The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. I keep forgetting what day that's on because I live in the editing room."
As part of the Documentary Edge Film Festival, Dancing in Jaffa will screen at Auckland's Q Theatre on Sunday at 4.30pm, Tuesday at 2pm and next Sunday at 5.30pm. A Wellington season follows. For more information, see documentaryedge.org.nz