Where Palestinian films tend to be of one sort—here’s a story about how the Jews are to blame for everything and that makes it okay to blow up buses and cafés—Israeli films are much broader, and when they address the issue of the conflict with Palestinian arabs, you really don’t know what side they’re going to come down on.
Waltz with Bashir, for example, struck me as very anti-Israeli. It’s not about yet another arab aggression but about how some Israelis suffered ethical lapses during, you know, war. (An astute observer might note that, well, duh, and that individual lapses, or even organizational lapses don’t invalidate the larger issues in the war. For example, FDR interning Japanese-looking Americans doesn’t suddenly make the Nazis and Japs good guys.) Then there was Walk on Water, The Gatekeepers, Cannon Fodder (which is floating around streaming services as Battle of the Undead).
I think it’s safe to say that Israel has a healthy leftist coalition dedicated to its destruction.
Point is, when you go to an Israeli movie about Palestine/Israeli relations, you don’t really know what you’re going to get, which makes a movie like A Borrowed Identity a genuine pleasure.
Our protagonist is Eyad, a Palestinian boy living in Israel in the mid-‘80s whose father is a fruit-picker/activist/possible terrorist. When confronted, Eyad’s father tells him “terrorist” is a word made-up by Israelis for “warriors"—though when asked, he denies being any such thing. High-schooler Eyad (early ’90s) is naturally appalled at the notion of going to the Best School in Israel since, of course, it’s predominately Jewish.
Here we get a little racism—though, more accurately, it’s tribalism—as Eyad is subject to a variety of outsider treatment, including abuse from Jewish Jocks (a category that hardly exists here in the USA). He finds a friend in Yonatan, a boy he hangs out with as part of a community service program (requirement for school), and as one would expect, falls in love with a girl, Nomi, though they must keep their relationship on the down-low.
The tribalism ebbs and flows, on the one hand, with Eyad and Yonatan trading barbs as good friends can, and on the other, while on the other, Eyad can’t get a job above dishwasher as an arab. The borrowed identity in question is Yonatan’s, which opens the lofty door of waiter to the young man.
You can probably see the big issues that must be dealt with: How does Eyad go back to his arab neighborhood? And if he does, how does he get a job worthy of the considerable cost to his parents? What does he do with a Jewish girlfriend? What about her parents? What happens when Yonatan and/or his mother find out he’s stolen his identity?
It takes a sensitive touch, and director Eran Riklis is up to the task, which would not have been apparent to me from the last film of his we say, Zaytoun. Don’t get me wrong—we really enjoyed Zaytoun (The Boy may even have preferred it), but it was a much less sophisticated take on a similar topic. Screenwriter Sayed Kashua doubtless deserves considerable credit, too.
The kids are mostly newcomers (to us, anyway) with Razi Gabareen and Tawfeek Barhom as young and old Eyad, respectively, Michael Moshonov as Yonatan, and the lovely Daniel Kitsis as Nomi. (I believe "Daniel” is correct, not “Danielle” or “Daniela”.) They provide a strong core dynamic, and wrestle with much bigger problems than you’ll find in your average teen movie, and while relatively mature, not overly so.
The resemblance between Barhom and Moshonov is an important part of the story, what with the whole borrowed identity thing, but I thought it was interesting that Yonatan’s mother, played by Yaël Abecassis (Live and Become) and French Lebanese actress Laëtitia Eïdo also look somewhat similar—and both took a strong maternal interest in Eyad. Surely not a coincidence.
Ali Suliman (Lone Survivor, Zaytoun) rounds out the major adult roles as Eyad’s oddly quixotic father. If the film has a weakness, it’s that the story raises a huge question about Eyad’s relationship with his parents, especially with Salah (Suliman), which is never addressed.
The Boy really liked this as well, though he was appalled at the Israeli arabs cheering Palestinian rocket attacks during Desert Storm.