Nearly two years ago, I interviewed the veteran Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis in connection with the rollout of another film; I relish the memory of that encounter. Among his highly-regarded works are “The Syrian Bride” and “Lemon Tree.” His latest, “A Borrowed Identity,” is based on a book by the popular (and controversial) Israeli-Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua, which Kashua himself adapted for the screenplay.
Kashua and Riklis relate comically and poignantly how a brilliant young boy from the Israeli-Arab town of Tira evolves into young adulthood after being accepted as a student at a prestigious Israeli boarding school. It just so happens that Kashua is originally from Tira and attended such a high school himself. (Norman Issa– the star of Kashua’s well-known Israeli television sitcom, “Arab Labor”– plays a buffoonish school principal in the movie’s early scenes, set in Tira.)
In a brief but glowing review in the NY Times, Andy Webster mistakenly refers to Eyad (the central character) as having a roommate with muscular dystrophe. Actually, Eyad comes to know Yonaton as the subject of his assignment for the school’s community service program. Nevertheless, this becomes a life-changing relationship — not least because his dedication to this slowly dying friend is a great relief to Yonaton’s despondent mother. It was a relief to me that this other close relationship (with Yonaton’s attractive mother) does not result in an affair, which would have cheapened the story in my view. Their intimacy takes a different dramatic turn.
But the actual romance that Eyad experiences, with the vivacious Naomi at his boarding school, evolves in a way that illustrates how Arab citizens of Israel appear as “other” to most Jewish Israelis. The film also shows that this is how Israeli Palestinians view their Jewish fellow citizens — as exemplified by Eyad’s family cheering from their roof, as Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles arc toward Tel Aviv.
The cast is excellent, not least being Ali Suliman as Eyad’s father (who starred in “The Attack”). After being disappointed, yet again, during the 1991 Gulf War by outside Arab forces not liberating them from Israel, his father tells Eyad that he had originally hoped for Israel’s defeat; he was a university student activist, falsely jailed for being a terrorist, and this cost him dearly in career terms. But now he says, responding to a follow-up question from Eyad, all he hopes for is to win their “dignity.”
Eyad chooses an entirely different strategy in his life struggle.