'A Borrowed Identity': Brilliant exploration of identity and conflict

Borrowed Identity

“A Borrowed Identity,” a striking Israeli film that was originally titled “Dancing Arabs,” is a drama that works brilliantly on many levels. It is an exploration of identity, culture, language and conflict, and is both a personal coming-of-age story and an observation on the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

It is directed by the renowned Israeli director Eran Riklis, whose previous films include the excellent “Lemon Tree” and “Syrian Bride,” with a powerful script and gifted cast. “A Borrowed Identity” may be the must-see film of this year’s Jewish Film Festival.

The film is based on a semiautobiographical novel by Israel-based Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua, who will introduce the film at its screening here. Despite the film’s original title, there is no dancing, by Arabs or anyone else. Instead, the focus is on one young person, a gifted Arab boy caught up in the dance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli cinema has never shied away from thoughtful national introspection, one of its strengths. 

The tone of “A Borrowed Identity” is set early on during a scene in which a Palestinian grade school teacher is telling his Arab students that their country’s real name is Palestine. The teacher abruptly changes the subject when an Israeli official comes in. The Israeli has brought a well-meaning American Jewish man to address the class about his nonprofit organization’s project for Israel schools. 

Speaking in English, the idealistic American tells the students of his group’s hopes to foster peace in Israel by bringing Jewish and Arab kids together. Yet the Israeli official mistranslates everything the American says, and even takes the opportunity to berate the Palestinian kids. The behavior of neither the Palestinian teacher nor the Israeli official offers much hope for peace.

The film begins at the time of the Lebanon War in 1982. Young schoolboy Eyad (Razi Gabareen) is a genius, according to neighbors in his Arab neighborhood. Eyad’s dad, Salah (Ali Suliman), is one of the better-educated men in the neighborhood, having studied at a university in Jerusalem. But an arrest during a student protest puts an end to college for him. Now a fruit picker like many of his neighbors, Salah has high hopes for his bright son to make good. 

When teenager Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) scores high on an entrance test for high school, the boy wins a spot at an exclusive Israeli boarding school in Jerusalem, the only Arab accepted at the school. 

Despite his isolation and being teased about his Hebrew, the quiet, polite Eyad works hard and gradually starts to fit in. A community volunteer program brings him together with Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), a Jewish teen with muscular dystrophy who needs help studying. Once a budding musician and still equipped with a wicked sense of humor, Yonatan is slowly losing control over his muscles. He and Eyad become close friends, seeing themselves as fellow outsiders. 

The Arab teen also becomes close with Yonatan’s mother, Edna (Yael Abecassis). Yonatan tells Eyad that he sometimes forgets Eyad is Arab. Eyad replies, “Me, too,” to which his friend responds, “Don’t worry, someone will remind you.”

The film follows Eyad as he adapts to living in Jerusalem. Most students at school grow comfortable with having an Arab friend, but the larger Israeli society is another matter. Eyad and a Jewish fellow student named Naomi (Daniel Kitsis) develop a sweet, teasing relationship but, when they fall in love, they must keep it secret. As they grow up, ultimately Eyad becomes faced with a life-altering choice, as the film reaches its striking conclusion.

The script and the acting are outstanding in this nuanced and thoughtful film. Young Barhom is very good as Eyad, and Kitsis is as luminous as she is insightful as Naomi. All of the cast are strong, individually and as an ensemble. The characters are so completely rounded and the relationships so believable that it is nearly impossible not to be drawn into their world and to care deeply about them. 

Eyad’s situation, intelligence and gentle personality add depth to the coming-of-age story, but the drama is also set against events in Israel and the Middle East. The story ranges from the 1982 Lebanon War to the American invasion of Iraq in the early 1990s, which helps give a historical context to the lives and personal decisions before these appealing characters. The director’s firm hand keeps everything rolling steadily as this complex and moving story unfolds. There is not a level on which this excellent film does not work.

Even though “A Borrowed Identity” has moments of humor, as real life does, its exploration of individuals caught in a complicated place where identity matters is handled deftly, seamlessly blending drama, complexity and heart. 

Director Riklis has an already strong reputation, but this gem is a sparkling addition to his crown.