Film Review: A Borrowed Identity

This excellent drama by Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis chronicles a young Arab-Israeli man’s painful coming of age.
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Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis’ A Borrowed Identity begins with the image of a young man seated on a rooftop, smoking a cigarette. It is evening, and at first he is distracted by street noise. Then he hears the Muslim call to prayer, and turns his head in the opposite direction. Positioned in mid-frame, his movements foreshadow a journey that pulls him one way and then another—yet the opening shot fades to a story that is one long flashback. A disruption of our expectations, and of movie time, Riklis’ editing suggests an eternal pattern and, in fact, at the end of A Borrowed Identity, he repeats the rooftop shot. The young man is Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom), an Arab Israeli, one among nearly 1.7 million.

Riklis, who is a popular filmmaker in Israel, always employs a multiracial cast. He is best-known here as the director and co-screenwriter of The Syrian Bride (2004), about a Syrian-Israeli woman who must choose between her marriage and her Israeli citizenship, and Lemon Tree (2008), based on the true story of an orchard destroyed by the Israeli government because it posed a threat to a defense minister. While these movies appear apolitical, they are undeniably critical of the Israeli state. In The Syrian Bride, the country’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy is to blame for the bride’s predicament, and in Lemon Tree, paranoia reigns, except in the relationship between the minister’s wife and the widow in whose orchard the government believes assassins may lurk.

A Borrowed Identity, written by Sayed Kashua, an Arab-Israeli journalist, more explicitly details Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens, although events unfold in the same microcosm as Riklis’ previous films. The predicament of families reflects the conflicts of the state. A hallmark of the filmmaker’s work is his humanism, most obvious in characters that in other instances might be seen as villains, such as the well-meaning but ineffective border agent in The Syrian Bride. Outright brutality is subtle or sidelined, as it is in A Borrowed Identity: In a brief scene, a gang of Jewish boys verbally abuse Eyad, who is dating Naomi (Danielle Kitzis), a Jewish student. She is a mute witness. In nearly all of Riklis’ films, as in A Borrowed Identity, Israeli Jews are transformed by their relationship with Arabs, and Arabs are also sensitized, as Eyad is, by his friendships with Jewish Israelis.

The flashback in A Borrowed Identity begins with Eyad as a gifted young boy growing up in the predominantly Arab town of Tira, with his secular parents and a charming, observant grandmother. Riklis skillfully, and often humorously, introduces the prejudices of Jews and Arabs through the family, and in a hilarious scene at school. Eyad’s Arab-Israeli principal grudgingly welcomes the government official who is in charge of the “Children’s Peace Program” but who does not speak Arabic. It will bring a Jewish child to dinner in Eyad’s home. Eyad asks the boy to translate the headline of a news article that features a picture of his father (Ali Suliman). The boy tells him that his father was a “terrorist,” when actually he had been a pro-Palestinian demonstrator. Eyad is proud of his father, and delights in the boy’s fear of him.

It is when a teenage Eyad is accepted to an Israeli boarding school in Jerusalem that the movie shifts to the young man’s quest for identity. The only Arab boy at school, Eyad is at first marginalized, but his gentle disposition and his intelligence soon win him friends and his pretty girlfriend, Naomi. Compelled to do community service by the school, Eyad is sent to care for Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), a boy his own age who suffers from muscular dystrophy. Their friendship, and that of Yonatan’s mother, Edna (Yael Abecassis), ushers Eyad more gently into life away from his family. For instance, when Naomi tells her parents that she is dating Eyad, and they withdraw her from school, it is Edna’s compassion that helps him to arrive at a solution.

In an act of chivalry that the principal advises him against, Eyad leaves school so that Naomi may return, but he does not abandon his studies. When his father learns of this decision, he tells Eyad to leave home. Having to fend for himself, Eyad returns to Jerusalem and finds a job. He continues to date Naomi, and maintains his friendship with Yonatan, but the teenager, confined to a wheelchair, is jealous of Eyad’s relationship with Naomi and of his relative freedom. To explain what happens next would be to reveal the “borrowed identity,” but suffice it to say that it refers as well to Eyad’s dual identity as a Muslim citizen of a Jewish state.

An excellent cast, a solid script, and a few surprises about the little-known circumstances of life as an Arab-Israeli citizen make A Borrowed Identity an absorbing film, albeit a standard drama. Riklis is the Israeli equivalent of a Hollywood filmmaker, although a particularly talented one. For instance, in extending the grandmother’s lines from one scene to the next, in a sequence in which Eyad has just left her, and for far longer than is standard in other films, and in his repetition of a close-up of Naomi’s face from Eyad’s point of view near the end of the film, the director reinforces the theme implied in the movie’s opening shot—that of disorientation, and of his protagonist’s struggle to reconcile the opposing forces in his life. A Borrowed Identity, like all of Riklis’ movies, is skillfully photographed and scored.

In the end, A Borrowed Identity suggests that all of us possess “borrowed identities,” the one our families, real and extended, confer on us, and another forced upon us by virtue of our statehood, or lack of it. Both shape our personalities, but Riklis insists that our humanity, our capacity for forgiveness and understanding, allows us to move past the issues that divide people and, by extension, that spur nations to war.

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