How the Other Half Lives: A Borrowed Identity

06/17/2015 8:14 AM |
photo courtesy of Strand Releasing

A Borrowed Identity
Directed by Eran Riklis
Opens June 26 at Lincoln Plaza

A Borrowed Identity is this film’s US title, adopted to circumvent the kind of cultural misunderstanding the film itself is meant to be about. The source material—a semi-autobiographical novel by Arab Israeli journalist Sayed Kashua—is called Dancing Arabs, and that’s the title Eran Riklis’s movie bore when its screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival was postponed, last year, in light of recent events: the killing of three Jewish Israeli teenagers, the retaliatory killing of a Palestinian teen, the bombs and rockets splitting the sky all summer. The guiding fear, at home and abroad, seems to be that onscreen fictions will look either too real or too distorted when projected onto actual carnage; either way, somebody may complain.

The screenplay, also by Kashua, splits the difference. At first, clever Eyad (Razi Gabareen as a child, then, as a teen, Tawfeek Barhom), growing up in the Arab village of Tira, watches the adults dissemble. His Leninist father, who spent two years in prison as a suspected terrorist, cheers on Saddam in 1991. But when the prospect of sending Eyad to one of Israel’s most prestigious boarding schools arises, he insists that his son attend—and become the best student there, in addition to being the only Arab. In Tira, A Borrowed Identity has a smart sense of humor about itself, that lucid, affectionate knowing which reads to hardliners as disloyalty to the cause (any cause). But in Jerusalem, where Eyad encounters everyday anti-Arab racism, these enthralling sparks are dampened by the creep of melodrama. Eyad’s girlfriend Naomi (Danielle Kitzis) can’t acknowledge him in public; his look-alike best friend Jonathan (Michael Moshonov) is a wheelchair-bound punk rocker with a saintly single mom (Yael Abecassis).

None of this can be blamed on Riklis’s impressive cast; Barhom’s slight twitch of the lips communicates more than his storyline. Social satire and slightly implausible drama are never quite separate here, but there’s something cynical about shifting toward the latter. A character wets himself onscreen, evidently to unstopper tearducts in the audience; meanwhile, Michael Wiesweg’s dryly vivid cinematography is too decorous to let human mess into the frame. From this precisely polite distance, distortions look mimetic; everything flattens. The question stands—who’ll fund a film that gets closer without losing focus? Who can afford to? Kashua, who has young children, now writes his column for Haaretz from Illinois.