"A Borrowed Identity" starts out nice and easy but don't be fooled. This is a soft-seeming film about a hard-edged, difficult subject, an Israeli film that offers a picture from life's other side.
Directed by the veteran Eran Riklis ("The Syrian Bride," "Lemon Tree," "The Human Resources Manager"), "A Borrowed Identity" deals with the situation of the roughly 10% of the state of Israel population (1.617 million people, we are told) who are Palestinians.
For the record, July 17, 2015: A July 3 review of the movie “A Borrowed Identity” said Palestinians constitute about 10% of Israel’s population. The figure is closer to 20%, according to the Israeli Bureau of Statistics.
Key to the telling is screenwriter Sayed Kashua, who with his novels, memoirs, television show "Arab Labor" and a column in the newspaper Haaretz was for many years the main voice speaking for that community.
"A Borrowed Identity" is adapted from Kashua's autobiographical writings, and at its best it has the tang of specific remembered experience. (The film's original Israeli title comes from the name of Kashua's best known book, "Dancing Arabs.")
The story begins, as many have before it, with a shot of brooding teen Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom). But as an Arab citizen of Israel, Eyad has a lot more to be brooding about than your typical movie adolescent.
The film proper begins with a flashback of Eyad as a young boy growing up in 1982 in the Arab village of Tira. These early scenes have something of a sitcom feeling about them, as young Eyad falls off the roof trying to adjust a cable tv aerial to get better reception.
From an early age, Eyad lives in a world of mixed messages. He lives in Israel and goes to an Israeli school but gets clandestine messages about Palestinian nationalism and he and his family root for the Arab side during the region's frequent armed clashes.
More complex is the story of his beloved father Salah (Ali Suliman) who was a promising university student before his involvement in Palestinian liberation politics derailed his career and led to his current occupation as a fruit picker.
Given this background, it surprises Eyad when his father is enthusiastically supportive when the young man gets accepted by one of the country's finest private high schools, the Jerusalem Arts and Sciences Academy. It's a chance of a lifetime, his father says, and an opportunity to show the Israelis you are better than them.
Not surprisingly, things are difficult for Eyad at first. For one thing, no one can correctly say his name and he himself has difficulty with some of his Hebrew pronunciation. Plus there is the inevitable bullying.
But though the film doesn't devote enough time to the motivations behind the actions, Eyad does make friends with two people who turn out to be key players in his life.
First there is Naomi (Danielle Kitzis), a beautiful fellow student who immediately, almost inexplicably, takes a shine to him. More complicated is the dark and cynical Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), another classmate who has muscular dystrophy and lives with his concerned mother Edna (Yael Abecassis).
Though Eyad gradually learns to fit in at school and say the right things in class, as "A Borrowed Identity" goes on, its tone darkens, as Eyad faces things in the broader Israeli society, like random identification card checks, that never seem to get any easier.
Eyad also comes to increasingly feel the anti-Arab prejudice in Israel, visible, for instance, in the way all the waiters in a restaurant he works in are Israeli while all the kitchen staff are Arabs. "How do you become a waiter?" the tart kitchen joke goes. "Die a martyr and ask Allah to send you back as a Jew."
At its best, "A Borrowed Identity" concerns itself with the malleability of self, with who we are and how society and culture can force identity choices on us. When Yonatan teases Eyad "sometimes I forget you're an Arab" and Eyad teases back "Sometimes I forget, too," the film gives Yonatan the last word:
"Don't worry, someone will always remind you."