‘A Borrowed Identity’ focuses on friendship and love, not politics

By Conor Dennin

Courtesy of Strand Releasing
(Courtesy of Strand Releasing)

I went to see “A Borrowed Identity, an Israeli film directed by Eran Riklis, expecting a deeply political drama fueling an ongoing debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I assumed that I would hear heated political rhetoric and see painful images from one of the most contested and heartbreaking geopolitical issues faced by the modern world. I was mistaken.

While Riklis cannot ignore the politics of the conflict, especially in telling a story about a young Palestinian man who is selected to attend one of the top Jewish high schools in Israel, the director chooses to capture the intimate personality of his protagonist, Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom), rather than the landscape of his political world. This choice makes “A Borrowed Identity” a refreshing alternative to successful films such as “Paradise Now” or “Omar,” both by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad. While those two films examine immense personal struggle against political obstacles, Riklis’ film depicts personal struggles against personal obstacles.

Riklis achieves this by making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict part of the scenery, but not a part of the plot. None of the major characters express explicit or passionate political opinions, though differing ideologies are evident throughout the film. The juxtaposition of quiet and comfortable Israeli neighborhoods and loud and vibrant Palestinian neighborhoods hints indirectly at a story of two different worlds. The audience sees Hebrew and Arabic graffiti, but hears nothing about the divide between the speakers of the two languages. This is a massive virtue of the film.

Despite being a Palestinian Muslim, Eyad attends an all-Jewish school and falls in love with a Jewish woman Naomi (Daniel Kitsis). Through a tutoring program, he befriends Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), an Israeli man with muscular dystrophy who is confined to a wheelchair. Yonatan and Eyad bond over rock music, films and food.

Naomi and Eyad navigate the awkward ordeal of young romance together. They kiss, dance, sneak phone calls to one another and lose their virginity to one another in an awkwardly accurate and truthfully hilarious scene. At risk of spoiling the major dilemma of the film – although the film’s title overtly points to it – in order to maintain his relationship with Naomi, Eyad must grapple with concealing his true identity. Eyad negotiates the complexities of romance and friendship through this challenge. Further, he gains a respect for wisdom, through the character Edna, brilliantly portrayed by Yaël Abecassis.

Eyad’s journey is complex. It is deeply personal. It is not grounded in politics. Certainly his world presents him with adversity, but the major obstacles in his life involve his relationships with others.

Stories, especially those told through film, have a wonderful way of subtly confronting political dilemmas by not talking about them at all. There are enough films that surround the Arab-Israeli conflict. There aren’t enough that remind us about the people who are forced to live through it. I saw a bit of myself in Eyad, Yonatan and Naomi. I didn’t see three young people caught up in the terrible and miserable world of conflict. I saw three adolescents struggling with their own personal challenges, on top of the awkward agony of being a teenager.

In truth, we need more stories like “A Borrowed Identity.” One of the most effective functions of film is its ability to engender empathy. We need more empathy in this world, especially when talking about controversial topics. Instead of films that perpetuate our hyper-political sensitivity about conflicts, we need to see the people who are living through them. And even more important than just seeing them, we need to see ourselves in them. “A Borrowed Identity” affords us this opportunity.

Conor Dennin can be reached at [email protected].