By chance, A Borrowed Identity comes to U.S. theaters amidst much discussion of “passing” as one race (however defined) from another. In Israel, the fraught racial history with Arabs is complicated by a familial connection in Biblical and Koranic tradition that considers both populations as descendants of Abraham: the Jews through his wife Sarah from Isaac and Arabs through her servant Hagar from Ishmael. The origins of the 19th-century term “anti-Semitism” considered them as the same “race.” Israeli Arab citizens (many prefer the term Palestinians), who stayed within the United Nation’s boundaries for the new country in 1948, now constitute 20 percent of the populace, but are rarely seen in mainstream films or outside the Other Israel Film Festival.
Director Eran Riklis’s films have frequently featured characters dealing with the external boundaries within and without Israel, including Lemon Tree, The Human Resources Manager, and Zaytoun. Here, he creatively explores crossing the psychological boundaries exacerbated by language, education, class, culture, and racism.
For Israelis, the most articulate and humanistic guide to these issues has been writer Sayed Kashua, through his newspaper columns, popular TV sitcom Arab Labor, and acclaimed novels. In the documentary, Forever Scared (2009), he described how he drew on many autobiographical elements in his first two novels, Dancing Arabs (also the original title of the film) and Let It Be Morning. His screenplay draws on the former about his childhood growing up in the Arab village Tira in northern Israel and the latter from his unusual experience of being plucked out as a gifted student to attend an elite boarding school in Jerusalem. The last third of the film is based on half of his most recent book, Second Person Singular, with some key modifications. It draws on what he saw at college, but it goes beyond his personal story into a daring drama.
Eyad (Razi Gabareen), as a child living in a dusty village in 1982 with no paved roads (and bombers overhead invading Lebanon), is surrounded by a loving family: father Salah (Ali Suliman, in a rare paternal role), an educated Palestinian now limited to picking fruit due to his political activities; doting mother Fahima (Laëtitia Eïdo); and his adored grandmother Aisha (Marlene Bajali), who entrusts him with her burial instructions. Much as his siblings and classmates tease him for being a brainiac, they find ways to use his abilities, including for a trivia contest on a government TV station. While there is a sitcom feel in the family scenes, the vocational, under-equipped, authoritarian public school is portrayed as a glaring example of the hypocrisy of any kind of separate-but-equal education.
So in 1988 the family insists he take advantage of the opportunity to study at an academically challenging school that rarely accepts Arabs. There, the humiliations are constant, from everyone Hebraizing his name to nasty bullies, and the instructors’ condescension is almost as bad. (Some slang may be lost for an American audience.) A required diversity event involves students visiting others’ homes, and Eyad’s chubby roommate misunderstands every well-meaning gesture from Eyad’s family, terrified that he’s with terrorists.
By 1990, his Hebrew improves in high school, and the sitcom feel goes away. Eyad (now played by Tawfeek Barhom) is assimilating and reluctantly standing up for himself, in and out of class, including resentfully pointing out Arab stereotypes in Israeli literary classics. Meanwhile, his Jewish girlfriend, Naomi (a sparkling Danielle Kitsis), still hides their intense relationship from her family.
His required community service opens up a new window into Israeli society, which becomes the intriguing heart of the film, when he arrives at the home of the widowed lawyer Edna (the riveting Yael Abeccassis) and her wheelchair-bound teenager with muscular dystrophy, Yonatan (Michael Moshonov). They are Eyad’s first exposure to left-wing, intellectual Jews and pop music.
Eyad thrives in their house. The teens’ friendship grows as Yonatan’s health declines, and Edna becomes a caring and encouraging substitute mother, even helping with Eyad’s (doomed) romance. In contrast, he becomes more distant from his own family. (The film is called Second Son in some countries.) He barely makes it home for his grandmother’s funeral.
Yet with limited housing and job options, he struggles to live as an Arab in Jerusalem so that the comparisons to the bedridden Yonatan’s legal freedom become just too frustrating. This leads Eyad (and Edna) to suspensefully start sliding down an ethical slope that step-by-step goes further and further in pushing the identity line. Eyad’s resentment is reminiscent of a classic line in Hal Ashby’s satire The Landlord (1970), that unlike a black baby, a child of the titular character had the luxury to “grow up casual.” Eyad finds a surprising way to achieve that.
The film, though, is more than a bit unbalanced because Moshonov commands the screen even when Yonatan’s mobility becomes limited. As Eyad, Barhom is sympathetic, but he isn’t in the same acting league, though the protagonist’s growing maturity by the concluding epilogue is credible. (Barhom was inspired to be an actor by watching Riklis film his 2004 The Syrian Bride in his home village) Both actors were nominated for the Israeli Academy Award.
Since the recent war in Gaza, writer Kashua felt the rise in negative attitudes towards Israeli Arabs necessitated his emigration with his family. One of the first Israeli films to be subtitled in Arabic for local showings, A Borrowed Identity makes his challenging presence felt in Israel dramatically.