Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jun 23, 2015 11:18 am 
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Growing up on both sides of the fence in Israel

Conventional in style, obvious in its contrasts, overly-fanciful in its latter part, Erin Riklis' recent film Dancing Arabs, aka A Borrowed Identity, nonetheless (as Jay Weissberg says in Variety) is one of his more complex efforts, dealing as it does with the tricky identity problems involved in the coming of age of a bright Israeli Palestinian Arab who winds up leaving his little Israeli Arab village to attend an elite Hebrew boarding school in Jerusalem with an attractive Jewish girlfriend and a world of confusion. Things are helped considerably by the lead performance of Tewfeek Barhom, with a sensitive face and a personal background that, in his words, was "tailor-made" for this role, which replays conflicts he himself has experienced as a linguistically assimilated Israeli Arab. He even has the same last name as the protagonist he plays, Eyad Barhom. Tawfeek is both charismatic and subtle in the role, despite a script that, while interesting (and dealing with incredibly fraught subject matter) relies a little too much on stereotypes and wish-fulfillment.

A Borrowed Identity is adapted by author Sayyed Kashua from his autobiographical Hebrew language novel, Dancing Arabs, the original title of the film, changed perhaps to make the story sound more universal, or to take out that ugly word "Arabs." Kashua, who is the creator of the popular, humorous Israeli TV series "Arab Labor," has softened the content of his own novel, lessening the intensity of protagonist Eyad Barhom's family background of political activism. The film is troubling for several reasons. First is the trajectory, which is intentional, and moves from an opening section of humorous Arab stereotypes for Eyad's early life, into a center section that is serious and mostly realistic, into a last section that has the hero slip into a "non-lethal Tom Ripley" territory, as Weissberg puts it, performing improbable feats of impersonation and identity-shifting, all in the cause of love, assimilation, and being a good guy. This doesn't seem to have worked for Kashua, since after years as a successful Hebrew language writer with a weekly column in Haaretz, last summer he announced in a column that he was giving up and taking his family to Illinois.

In the jokey, simplistic opening, little Eyad is considered a genius in his small home town of Tira, and gains wide attention by solving a hard riddle on a TV show. He's pushed by his angry, frustrated dad, who had talent too but was set back to being a fruit picker due to jail time for dissident political activity, to go to a Hebrew boarding school for bright students. His mom Fahima (Laetitia Eido) is beautiful and his grandma Aisha (Marlene Bajal) is an elderly paragon of loving and religious Arab womanhood. At the boarding school, Eyad is terrified and a misfit and mocked for his clothes and lack of Hebrew (he has to learn how to stop pronouncing P's like B's). But he's soon taken in tow by a giggly, pretty girl, Naomi (Daniel Kitsis), Jewish, of course, since he's the only Arab student, who falls in love with him, and he with her. They ritually exchange "I love you's" and "I love you more's" in both Hebrew and Arabic, hiding their love from her parents and other students.

Tawfeek Barhom is subtle in gradually modulating his character toward greater confidence and maturity. The boy is assigned as a helper and companion to Jonatan Avaram (Michael Moshonov), a fellow student afflicted with muscular dystrophy, whose teasing of Eyad relaxes him and is a way of dealing with the racism that's a given in any Arab-Jewish Israeli relationship. Jonatan's mother Edna (Yael Abecassis) is so fond of Eyad she asks him to move in when Jonatan's condition deteriorates, and his relation to Jonatan turns into a kind of fusion in more ways than one.

There are several key moments. At a bus stop hostile orthodox Jewish schoolboys mock Eyad as a "nerd" and chant an anti-Arab song while Naomi sits by maintaining an impassive expression. More importantly, when asked a question in literature class Eyad gives a quietly impassioned indictment of the racist treatment of Arab males in all of even Israeli's best fiction writers. Rather than a moment, it is a series of moments that define the seeming impossibility of Eyad and Naomi's relationship, especially when she plans to join the intelligence corps for her military service and must have a strict security clearance. After that, it's over.

A Palestinian friend of mine who went through a very similar experience in Israel insists that while a bright boy like Eyad could have had great success with the Hebrew school teachers, the other students' general acceptance of an Arab boy in their midst, particularly after his attack on the Orientalism of modern Hebrew fiction, is inconceivable. My friend scoffed at the stereotypical treatment in the film of the Arabs in Eyad's home village, as well as at the dumbing-down of Eyad's (Kashua's) father. It seems a shame that Kashua and Riklis choose to deal with such fraught issues with stereotypes and fantasies. Though it's a flaw common to coming-of-age stories, it's a pity the film doesn't develop any but the three major characters of Eyad, Naomi, and Jonatan. And it really takes a close look only at Eyad -- who, Tom Ripley-like, seems to lack much sense of himself anyway. But the acting, especially Barhom's, is good, and at least this gives a wider audience a look at issues they don't know about.

Eran Riklis' accessible, feel-good treatments of the Arab-Israeli dilemma scored well in the case of The Syrian Bride and The Lemon Tree; less so with Human Resources and Zayton. The international audience has grown increasingly aware of great Israeli directors like Joseph Cedar (Beaufort, Footnote), Nadav Lapid (Policeman, The Kindergarten Teacher), as well as such bold explorations as Haim Tabakman's Orthodox gay love story Eyes Wide Open, Eytan Fox's ongoing gay sagas, Ari Forman's prize-winning animation Waltz with Bashir. Plus we have gotten more and more reality-checking in Israeli documentaries like Dror Moreh's Oscar-nominated The Gatekeepers , Alexandrowicz's The Law in These Parts, and Yotan Feldman's exposé of the huge Israeli arms market, The Lab. Overall, the competition has gotten stiffer and the rose-colored glasses have been increasingly off. Riklis' approach is beginning to seem quaint.

A Borrowed Identity, original title Dancing Arabs, 104 mins., in Arabic and Hebrew,debuted at Jerusalem (though fears of rockets caused a opening night cancellation); and at, Locarno internationally, Telluride in the US in July and August 2014. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, May 2015. It opened in France with the title Mon fils ("My Son"), with good reviews (AlloCiné press rating of 3.5). A NYC theatrical release 26 June 2015 (3 July L.A.).

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