The complex interrelated identities of Jewish and
Palestinian Israelis—two peoples divided by a shared culture, to paraphrase
Oscar Wilde’s reputed quip—is movingly explored in “A Borrowed Identity,” a
sharply mounted drama about a young Arab who finds reasons to “pass” as Jewish.
The film represents a merging of cultures in its origins
too. It was directed by Eran Riklis, a leading Israeli filmmaker (“The Human
Resources Manager,” “The Syrian Bride”), and scripted by acclaimed Arab-Israeli
writer Seyad Kashua (“Dancing Arabs,” “Let It Be Morning”), based on his
The tale opens in an Arab village in the 1980s when the
family of young Eyad (Razi Gabareen) are transfixed by the sight of Israeli
jets attacking Lebanon on the TV news. Politics and war are much on everyone’s
minds, but so are the bonds of family. Eyad is particularly close to his
grandmother (Marlene Barjali), who advises him on her wishes for her burial, an
event he hopes is far in the future.
Eyad also looks up to his feisty, opinionated dad (Ali
Suliman), a laborer who sees his son as the key to a brighter future. Many of
the scenes of Eyad’s schooling are comical, as when as a Jewish-American peace
activist comes into the classroom and tells the students he wants to build
bridges between Jewish culture and theirs, and his Israeli translator
translates this as saying that the Arab kids will never be anything but farmers
and laborers. But school is also a serious place for Eyad; since he is the
brightest of students, it offers the chance to propel himself into a better
When the tale’s second act opens, it is the early ‘90s and
Eyad (now Tawfeek Barhom) is a determined teen arriving at one of Jerusalem’s
most prestigious boarding schools. He seems to be the only Arab student, and
his Jewish fellows appear to view him with a mixture of curiosity and veiled
suspicion. Bent on academic success, he does his best to fit in and make
One friend in particular adds to his new life’s delights and
complications. Naomi (Danielle Kitsis) is a beautiful fellow student whose
attraction to Eyad develops rapidly into romance, but one that’s eventually
threatened by the various obstacles facing them, including those presented by
her Jewish family. Thanks to the strong performances of the actors here, the
film’s presentation of young love is impressively nuanced and persuasive.
Eyad forges an important friendship outside of school with
Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), a young man who’s homebound with muscular
dystrophy. At first reaching out to him is an assignment and a chore, but the
two soon bond over rock music. Eyad is also moved by Yonatan’s relationship
with his mother, Edna (Yael Abeccassis).
Eventually Eyad’s scholarly pursuits are derailed, much to
his father’s annoyance and dismay, and he’s obliged to go to work. But gaining
employment and even things like having a bank account are difficult for Arabs,
so, in need of an Israeli identity, he lights on one—Yonatan’s. If going to a
Jewish academy was a big jumping off point in his life, adopting a Jewish
identity is an even bigger one.
“A Borrowed Identity” commendably avoids polemics in order
to provide a textured portrait of a young man going through a set of personal
transitions against the background of ongoing cultural flux that reflects a
larger, collective identity crisis. Its evocation of the historical period
feels carefully honed and resonant.
It’s not a film without flaws, however. Eyad’s relationships
with his Jewish male friends at school could have stood deeper development. And
his relationship with Naomi is not given a satisfying resolution but instead
seems to get lost in the mounting emphasis on Yonatan and the new identity. All
the same, “A Borrowed Life” emerges as one of the most engaging and polished of
recent Israeli films, and as such is well worth the attention of anyone
interested in the cultures and issues it limns.