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“A Borrowed Identity” — Another Dazzling Israeli Film

Esther Cohen
April 22, 2015
by Esther Cohen Reviewed in this Essay: A Borrowed Identity, directed by Eran Riklis. Written by Sayed Kashua, from his book by the same name. Strand Releasing, 2014, 104 minutes. dancing-arabs-lacorno-film-festival-film-review-m1smgti5igxdk5x8lkg5ma1hd7rmv9bvmhosk9to20OFTEN WHEN I leave the movie theater after having seen an Israeli film, a wonderful, incomparable Israeli film that is psychologically insightful, funny, sad, and profound, a film like A Borrowed Identity (or Gett, the amazing Orthodox divorce drama that I wrote about here), I talk about how confusing it is for so many of us to understand Israel, a country that elected Benjamin Netanyahu, that is so mired in ugly dailiness, and yet (here’s the odd part, the and yet) has the ability to make incomparable films, both deeply critical, wonderfully original, even humorous. Films like A Borrowed Identity. Eran Riklis is a terrific filmmaker (his films are on Netflix. Watch Lemon Tree and Syrian Bride, two of my favorites, if you haven’t already), and this film, called Dancing Arabs in its Israeli release, comes from a semi-autobiographical novel by the incomparable Israeli based Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua (creator of the riotous Israeli TV series Arab Labor). Eyad is a very smart Palestinian boy from the village of Tira (Kashua’s hometime) who is accepted into a prestigious Israeli boarding school. His father had begun university in Jerusalem, but political activity sent him to jail, and for years he’s been a fruit picker. The family’s hopes are all placed in Eyad, their star. He goes to the school with great hesitation. He’s not Jewish. His Hebrew is problematic. He feels isolated and lonely. His one friend is Yonatan, a boy with muscular dystrophy who Eyad helps with homework. Both Eyad and Yonatan are misfits. Eyad has a relationship, for a while, with a lively Israeli girl, whose parents say horrible things about Arabs. (Her mother says she’d rather her daughter have cancer than an Arab boyfriend.) In many ways the film is subtle, and anti-Arab sentiment is handled in an unusual way. We feel the pain of being an Israeli Arab. In one of the best moments of the film, the Eyad character talks, in class, about how even the most liberal of Israeli writers, from Agnon to Amos Oz, write about Arabs, fetishizing and sexualizing them. Arabs, he says, are never real in Israeli literature. Emotionally rich, Riklis’s sympathetic portrait (and Kashua’s often dazzling language) make this film a Don’t Miss. Esther Cohen’s several books include Book Doctor, a novel, and Don’t Mind Me and Other Jewish Lies, with cartoonist Roz Chast. Watch an sub-titled excerpt from Dancing Arabs, the title for A Borrowed Identity in its Israeli release: