opening moments of Eran Riklis’ translucent new film A Borrowed Identity, we see a young man on a Jerusalem rooftop looking
out over the evening skyline. He is utterly alone, smoking, silent.
to 1982. A boy named “Eyad” (Razi Garareen) floats high above the houses in the
Palestinian village of Tira, trying to fix a television antenna. The Israelis
have just invaded Lebanon and his father “Salah” (Ali Suliman) wants a clearer
picture of the goings on. Salah is hoping this will finally be the beginning of
the end of the state of Israel. Surely the Arab armies will mobilize and the
Jews will scatter?
to 1988. Teenage “Eyad” (Tawfeek Barhom) is more than just the apple of his
father’s eye. Eyad is the repository of all of Salah’s hopes and dreams. And
so, when Eyad is accepted into a prestigious boarding school in Jerusalem,
Salah insists that he go. Eyad will learn from the Jews and turn their teachings
against them. Eyad will become Salah’s shield against disappointment and satisfy
needs so long deferred.
Eyad is just a kid, and once he settles into his new school, Eyad wants what
most kids want—he wants to fit in. And so begins the process of transformation
by which Eyad becomes “Yonatan,” the Jewish man with an Israeli passport who smokes
cigarette after cigarette on that Jerusalem rooftop.
Eran Riklis is an internationally-known Israeli filmmaker who has made a number
of significant films about Palestinian/Israeli relations including Cup Final, Lemon Tree, The Syrian Bride, and
Zaytoun. He has won awards from film festivals all around the world, and
here in Chicago he was nominated for Golden Hugo awards twice by the Chicago
International Film Festival (for The
Syrian Bride in 2004 and for Lemon
Tree in 2008). Since I have seen all of these films—and several other
Riklis films as well—I can say without hesitation that A Borrowed Identity is his “personal best” to date.
Riklis’ first collaboration with Sayed Kashua, an
Arab-Israeli journalist best-known for his comedy series Arab Labor, for which he received two “Best Script of a Comedy
Series” awards from the Israel Television Academy in 2011 and 2012. (Episodes
of Arab Labor have appeared regularly
on our Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema schedules.) Riklis and Kashua make a terrific team, seamlessly melding the
particular and the universal to create a powerful, unforgettable 20th
20th Century because some of the things Eyad was able to do then
would probably not be possible now. Security is much tighter since 9/11, and
the ubiquity of cyberspace would undoubtedly limit Eyad’s ability to simply
disappear when Yonatan goes off to study in Berlin. And yet, who knows? Someone
smarter than me—someone as smart as Eyad—will probably find new ways. So still
the voice in your mind that says “Impossible!” when Eyad gets to the
checkpoint, hands over someone else’s I.D. card, and is told to drive on. He
“passes,” he gets away with it, as so many others have before him.
what happens to Salah? We never know, and perhaps Eyad will never know either.
That is the high cost of passing from one culture to another. A father makes
sacrifices to give his son a better life and all too often that son moves on,
ashamed of where he came from, and determined to be accepted for who he really
is even before he knows who he will actually become.
actors ground the narrative arc of A Borrowed Identity, turning all of the
characters into highly specific human beings who must be exactly who they are
no matter how we see their “Big Picture.”
scenes set in the village of Tira revolve around Salah and his nemesis “Jamal”
(Norman Issa). Salah was the smart one as well as the handsome one—the one who
went to study in Jerusalem but ended up imprisoned for his political
activities. Jamal, now the principal of the elementary school, gets his revenge
by endlessly taunting Eyad. “Your father is a fruit picker!” “My father is a
terrorist!” “Your father is a fruit picker!” “My father is a terrorist!” Whack
goes Jamal’s ruler while Eyad chokes back his tears.
edges of this drama hover Eyad’s mother “Fahima” (Laëtitia Eïdo) and his grandmother “Aisha” (Marlene Bajali). These women cannot
rescue Eyad from his father and the battles he fights on his father’s behalf,
but their love cushions him, and Grandmother Aisha finds ways to tell him details
that her son Salah will no longer reveal to others.
Jerusalem, Eyad is befriended by “Naomi” (Danielle Kitzis), a classmate who is shocked that Eyad will not
even correct the people who are mispronouncing his name. (His name is AY-yad,
not ah-YEED.) Naomi teaches Eyad how to make the “P” sound required for proper
Hebrew pronunciation, and he falls head over heels in love with her.
other friend is “Edna” (Yael Abeccassis),
the mother of a boy with muscular dystrophy. By teaching him the whats and
wherefores of her life daily life, Edna inadvertently becomes Eyad’s de facto “Jewish
mother.” And then the day comes when they both realize there is no turning back...
As the great American novelist Thomas Wolfe said: “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
Friday, July 3 at the Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street.
my Blog Second City Tzivi for
more thought on and pictures from A
Photo: Salah (Ali Suliman) watches the news in Tira.
Bottom Photo: Edna (Yael Abeccassis) serves Shabbat Dinner to Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) and her son (Michael Moshonov) in Jerusalem.
Photo Credits: Eitan Riklis