A Borrowed Identity starts out nice and easy, but don’t be fooled. This is a soft-seeming film about a hard-edged, difficult subject, an Israeli film that offers a picture from life’s other side.
Directed by Eran Riklis (Lemon Tree, The Human Resources Manager), A Borrowed Identity deals with the situation of the roughly 10 percent of the state of Israel population (1.617 million people, we are told) who are Palestinians.
Key to the telling is screenwriter Sayed Kashua, who with his novels, memoirs, TV show Arab Labor and a column in the newspaper Haaretz, was for many years, the main voice speaking for that community.
A Borrowed Identity is adapted from Kashua’s autobiographical writings, and at its best, it has the tang of specific remembered experience. (The film’s original Israeli title comes from the name of Kashua’s best known book, Dancing Arabs.)
The story begins, as many have before it, with a shot of brooding teen Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom). But as an Arab citizen of Israel, Eyad has a lot more to be brooding about than your typical movie adolescent.
From an early age, Eyad lives in a world of mixed messages. He lives in Israel and goes to an Israeli school but gets clandestine messages about Palestinian nationalism, and he and his family root for the Arab side during the region’s frequent armed clashes.
More complex is the story of his beloved father, Salah (Ali Suliman), who was a promising university student before his involvement in Palestinian liberation politics derailed his career and led to his current occupation as a fruit picker.
Given this background, it surprises Eyad when his father is enthusiastically supportive when the young man gets accepted by one of the country’s finest private high schools, the Jerusalem Arts and Sciences Academy. It’s a chance of a lifetime, his father says, and an opportunity to show the Israelis you are better than them.
Not surprisingly, things are difficult for Eyad at first. For one thing, no one can correctly say his name, and he himself has difficulty with some of his Hebrew pronunciation. But Eyad does make friends with two people who turn out to be key players in his life.
First there is Naomi (Danielle Kitzis), a beautiful fellow student who immediately takes a shine to him. More complicated is the dark and cynical Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), another classmate who has muscular dystrophy and lives with his concerned mother, Edna (Yael Abecassis).
Though Eyad gradually learns to fit in at school, as A Borrowed Identity goes on, its tone darkens as Eyad faces things in the broader Israeli society, like random identification card checks, that never seem to get any easier.
Eyad also comes to increasingly feel the anti-Arab prejudice in Israel, visible, for instance, in the way all the waiters in a restaurant he works in are Israeli while all the kitchen staff are Arabs.
At its best, A Borrowed Identity concerns itself with the malleability of self, who we are and how society and culture can force identity choices on us. When Yonatan teases Eyad “sometimes I forget you’re an Arab,” and Eyad teases back “Sometimes I forget, too,” the film gives Yonatan the last word:
“Don’t worry, someone will always remind you.”
Cast: Tawfeek Barhom, Yael Abecassis, Michael Moshonov, Danielle Kitzis, Ali Suliman.
Director: Eran Riklis.
Screenwriter: Sayed Kashua.
A Strand Releasing release. Running time: 104 minutes. In Hebrew, Arabic, English and German with English subtitles. Adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave.