Review: A Borrowed Identity (Riklis, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Photo by Eitan Riklis, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Photo by Eitan Riklis, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

The Arab Israeli is a persistent subject of Israeli cinema. Arabani follows an outcast and his two children returning to his (Arab) Druze community in Israel, the documentary Life Sentences features a man born of a Jewish mother and a PLO leader, and now A Borrowed Identity tells the story of a talented Arab teen trying to get by in a Jewish-dominated society. The last film is based off of the semi-autobiographical novel Dancing Arabs, by Sayed Kashua, who also wrote the movie’s screenplay.

When Eyad (Tawfeek Barhoum), youngest in a close-knit Arab Israeli family, wins a scholarship to attend a prestigious Jewish boarding school, he must leave his beloved boisterious family behind to navigate a much more hostile world in Jerusalem. As if ordinary high school weren’t difficult enough, Eyad also has to contend with his position as a loathed minority. Luckily he has his pluck, ingenuity, and a secret new Jewish girlfriend to help him along. In between making out and sharing music, Naomi (Daniel Kitsis) corrects Eyad’s mispronunciations of Hebrew. Soon he can almost “pass” as a Jewish person–at least until he has to show his ID card.

A Borrowed Identity is a fairly typical but nonetheless engaging coming-of-age story/tale of discrimination. Eyad enjoys all the satisfying and unrealistic virtues of a hero benefiting from his creator’s wit and experience. If the cards seem stacked against our protagonist, he certainly has tools enough to combat them. Getting his bearings, the articulate Eyad schools his literature teacher in the biases of an esteemed Jewish author, starts a lucrative side business selling Arab food out of his dorm room to his classmates, and compels Naomi to publicly declare her love for him. All of this underdog-beating-the-odds stuff is, of course, enormously satisfying.

And so go the first two-thirds of the film. The last third, however, is decidedly darker as forces of bigotry follow the young Arab into the relatively sheltering walls of the boarding school. In an act of love, the idealistic Eyad gambles his future and finds himself in desperate circumstances. No longer belonging at home, self-exiled from school, the only people to whom he can turn are his best friend Yonatan (Michael Moshonov)–a teen afflicted with muscular dystrophy and an odd sense of humor–and Yonatan’s mother (Yaël Abecassis). A passing resemblance to Yonatan makes the film’s heretofore metaphorical title literal, but Eyad’s passage into mainstream Jewish society ultimately alienates him as much as it affords him material opportunity.

Aside from its entertainment value, A Borrowed Identity has a fairly standard plotline with a familiar tone (successful combinations become formulas for a reason). Nothing groundbreaking here. But it does open a window into the relatively little known experience of “ordinary” Arabs living in Israel, and for that it is a worthwhile watch.