Arab teen comes of age in ‘A Borrowed Identity’

Tawfeek Barhom plays a teen struggling to maintain his Arab identity in “A Borrowed Identity.” (Courtesy Strand Releasing)

Its title is so dull that few will remember it, but “A Borrowed Identity” is a film that sticks with you. Following an Israeli Palestinian teenager as he strives to fit in at a prestigious Jewish high school, this drama is at once an enjoyable coming-of-age tale and a truthful look at difficult realities.

The director is Tel Aviv-based Eran Riklis, who addresses the Arab-Israeli conflict through stories containing Arab protagonists and human connections that cross cultural and religious lines. His “Lemon Tree” featured a proudly Palestinian heroine who challenged the Israeli system after it ordered her to destroy her modest orchard. This time, working from a screenplay by Sayed Kashua (adapting two autobiographical novels), Riklis presents us with a promising young man who suppresses his Arab identity, seeing no other way to succeed in Israeli society.

Eyad (played as a child by Razi Gabareen and as a teen by Tawfeek Barhom) is a bright Palestinian boy who lives with his family in Tira, an Arab town in Israel. In the early 1990s, Eyad begins attending an esteemed Jerusalem high school. But while he’s smart in class, and his fellow students seem to like him, he doesn’t feel he belongs there.

Eyad begins dating Naomi (Danielle Kitsis), a Jewish girl, but her parents forbid the relationship. He quickly determines he must suppress all hints of his Arab origins in order to be truly accepted.

An exception is Eyad’s friendship with Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), a Jewish student with muscular dystrophy. The boys bond in their common outsiderhood, and Yonatan’s mother, Edna (Yael Abeccassis), embraces Eyad for his devotion to her physically declining son.

Soon, Eyad, with Yonatan’s and Edna’s support, is assuming Yonatan’s identity on occasions where being perceived as a Jew named Yonatan rather than an Arab named Eyad will benefit him. These activities
eventually lead to a life-altering decision.

Eyad’s third-act actions come close to defying credibility. This is partly because the filmmakers don’t present the Eyad-Yonatan bond deeply enough to inspire us to fully believe what it gives rise to.

Naomi, meanwhile, is a mere symbolic presence, representing forbidden love.

But this movie triumphs, overall, in several arenas. It is an engaging coming-of-age story, a thoughtful call for dialogue and peace, and a never heavy-handed depiction of everyday indignities, such as street harassment by Israeli soldiers, experienced by people like Eyad. It is a challenging consideration of the dilemma of assimilation. As a period piece, too, it delivers the goods, at one point having fun with Saddam’s visage.

The cast, meanwhile, is solid. Palestinian actor Ali Suliman, also seen in Riklis’ “Lemon Tree” and “The Syrian Bride,” stands out in the role of Eyad’s politically conscious fruit-picker father.

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