LOS ANGELES (JTA) – It is one of the paradoxes of Arab-Jewish relations in Israel that some of the best movies depicting Palestinians as society’s outsiders are made by Jewish directors. Similarly, Palestinian directors often draw more balanced pictures of their Jewish “occupiers” than do some self-lacerating Jewish-Israeli filmmakers.
A case in point for the first phenomenon: A Borrowed Identity, a film by the veteran director Eran Riklis. The plot revolves around Eyad, a bright Palestinian teenager from a small West Bank town. He is offered a scholarship to study at the Israel Arts and Science Academy, a prestigious private boarding school in Jerusalem.
Eyad is reluctant to accept at first, but his father – who spent more than two years in Israeli prisons – is all for it.
“You can be the first Palestinian to build an atom bomb,” he encourages his son. “You can be better than the Jews in every way.”
So Eyad enrolls, but it’s not easy for him. He eats and studies without companionship. Some of his classmates make fun of his Arabic-inflected Hebrew accent.
A class discussion on who started the 1948 war proves awkward and, in another class debate, Eyad lashes out that even the most perceptive Israeli writers, such as Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, draw Arab characters as sexual fantasy figures or “signifiers of otherness.”
Eyad winds up connecting with two of his classmates. One is Yonatan, also an “other” because his muscular dystrophy forces him to navigate the school grounds in a wheelchair. Then there’s the free-spirited Naomi, who introduces Eyad to Hebrew slang.
Naomi and Eyad start dating surreptitiously, and when Naomi’s mother finds out, she is horrified.
“Tell me you’re a lesbian,” she tells her daughter. “Tell me you have cancer, but don’t tell me you are dating an Arab boy.”
The script was written by the popular and controversial Arab-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua; the film is based on his autobiographical novel. (Kashua’s own life paralleled that of Eyad’s, as he attended a private Jewish school in Jerusalem and later graduated from the Hebrew University.) Kashua is well known in Israel for his sharp-eyed observations in his weekly column in Haaretz, as well as creating the popular Israeli sitcom Arab Labor, which is now shown on many PBS affiliates in the United States.
Eventually Eyad leaves school, partially to allow Naomi to reconcile with her parents and partially to enable her to pass a security check for a job in the Israeli army intelligence service. He starts work in a Jerusalem restaurant and learns from a fellow dishwasher, also an Arab, that only Jews can advance to the status of waiter.
“The best thing you can do is to die and ask Allah to send you back as a Jew,” the dishwasher counsels Eyad.
To tell more of the plot risks introducing spoilers, but Eyad’s complex character is impressively brought to life by Tawfeek Barhom, a 24-year old Arab-Israeli actor. His love interest is played by Danielle Kitzis, an American who immigrated to Israel with her parents.
Riklis, a mainstay of the Israel cinema for 30 years, has frequently focused his lens on Palestinian-Jewish Israeli relations, including with such award-winning movies as The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree and Zaytoun. In Hebrew, A Borrowed Identity (as well as the original book) is titled Dancing Arabs, which might lead the unwary filmgoer to anticipate an off-kilter musical comedy akin to The Producers.
Riklis, in a Skype interview, gives a more sophisticated explanation for the title.
“I see the story as a dance between identities or, if you will, a ‘dance of life,’ with two steps forward and one backward,” the director said.
But, Riklis added, “The film is open to interpretation, as is life itself. … This is a film about searching and, at the end, everything is open, anything can still happen.”
Case in point: Kashua’s real-life trajectory. After making his name in Israel as a journalist and writer, Kashua startled his admirers last year by announcing that living in Israel had become “too much” for him and that he was accepting a job at the University of Illinois.
Riklis hopes that Kashua will eventually return to Israel, but noted the complexity of Arab-Jewish relations.
“I am working with Arab people all the time,” he said. “It’s easy to form relationships with them, but one missile strike can change everything.”
In its review of A Borrowed Identity, the Jerusalem Post noted, “Anyone who sees the film – Jew, Arab or someone from outside Israel completely – will be able to identify with the characters and to understand far more about the reality here than they could learn from any article or editorial.”