A Borrowed Identity is the story of a Palestinian boy named Eyad. He is introduced as a young child, but then the bulk of the movie takes place when he is a teen.
A gifted child, Eyad is accepted into an almost entirely Jewish, prestigious, Israeli boarding school. From here the movie kind of develops along parallel paths; there is the story of his experiences at the school, including the relationships/conflicts between Jews and Palestinians, and including his romance with a Jewish girl named Naomi, and there is the story of his growing friendship with a Jewish teen Jonathan slowly dying from muscular dystrophy that he meets when doing volunteer work.
A Borrowed Identity is an intelligent, thoughtful film with realistic characters of some complexity.
Not every element of it is all that plausible; let’s say the forest is realistic but only most of the trees are. For example, there’s a scene in a classroom where the previously sullen Eyad breaks out into an extended, passionately defiant, and very articulate, speech that puts the teacher in her place and draws the applause of his classmates. It’s a dramatic high point of the film, but it’s also the kind of thing it’s virtually impossible would ever happen in real life.
But with a few exceptions like that, I bought into A Borrowed Identity.
It’s generally a very serious film, but it does have some moments of humor, and they work quite well. My favorite was probably the sequence about the after school program in Eyad’s elementary school—introduced by a dopey, naïve, but unquestionably well-meaning American—where Jewish and Palestinian children are paired off to spend time with each other and meet each other’s families. (“Mom! I brought my Jew home!”) The poor Jewish boy, primed by all his assumptions and prejudices about Palestinians, is scared to death in Eyad’s home, especially when Eyad’s father absent-mindedly waves his knife around while making a point at the dinner table.
The movie does not shy away from showing the hostility between Jews and Palestinians, the way each side is utterly convinced of the justice of their cause and of the irrational cruelty and inhumanity of the people on the other side.
Most of the Jews manifest contempt, fear, distrust, hatred, or some combination toward the Palestinians amongst them. Eyad and other Palestinians are subjected to routine bullying, harassment, and daily indignities, and learn that fighting back brings nothing but greater trouble. Even at the elite boarding school that Eyad eventually attends, the teachers teach their material with a blatantly anti-Arab bias. (So much so that I wonder how realistic it is. Would they really say some of the things they say in the classroom when they know there’s a Palestinian sitting amongst the students, or would there be some kind of self-conscious political correctness?)
Meanwhile, pretty much every Palestinian in the movie is simplistically and unambiguously anti-Israel. In the Palestinian neighborhoods they gather together to watch the rockets fired into the country by Hezbollah, and cheer any that land in Jewish areas.
But it’s not like they’re monsters as individuals. I especially liked Eyad’s kindly grandmother, and both his father and his mother are more sympathetic than not. But all of them are quite clear on whom the enemy is.
The father—in most ways a seemingly good and loving person—is particularly determined to see his son complete his education and achieve success in life, as he himself was expelled from college for mysterious reasons and as a result never advanced beyond a meager, working class existence. He may have only participated in some kind of defensible, peaceful protest as a college student, or he may have had some involvement in genuine terrorism—that’s left ambiguous. When he’s asked whether he still believes that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state and that the land should revert to being simply Palestine, he responds that, no, he knows the Jews are here to stay and what he wants is some kind of two-state solution that provides meaningful self-determination for the Palestinian people. But you can see that this is but a grudging acknowledgement of reality. In his heart his real answer is something more like, “For all they’ve done to us, justice requires the land be ours and ours alone. But history has moved on; that’s never going to happen. So we’ll settle for some kind of co-existence with them where they no longer oppress us.”
Eyad himself is an intriguing character. I described him above as “sullen,” and I think that’s as good a word as any. He keeps things inside. Even in his close relationships he seems to be holding back. His first priority is always to not allow himself to be vulnerable.
The thing is, that’s not at all some natural disposition of his, but is very much a product of environmental conditioning. That’s the importance of that early sequence with him as a young child. Back then, he was conscious of being special, largely because of his brains. He was happy, he was extroverted, he frankly spoke up for what he believed. The people around him treated him as someone destined to stand out, and he embraced that idea.
Now he’s all about not standing out.
The relationship with Naomi is a tough one, as they must keep it secret, especially from her parents, who are sure to be furious if they find out. I think this is handled quite realistically. I hesitate to say anything at all critical of Naomi, as she’s really hot and has a dynamite topless scene, but it’s very much to be expected that ultimately she’ll flake. She’s 17 or whatever after all, and that’s an age when people say a lot of extreme things about love, and permanence, and no sacrifice or obstacle being too great, and all that—and indeed are fully sincere when saying them—but they really don’t have a deep understanding of what all that means and what they’re really committing themselves to (as vehemently as they’d deny that). In the end a 17 year old girl is still a 17 year old girl.
On the other hand, it’s just as realistic that Jonathan’s mother—a grown woman, a stable person with much life experience, including very painful experiences involving her son—would prove to be much deeper and more dependable in her relationship with Eyad.
Actually all that material about his friendship with Jonathan and Jonathan’s mother feels like it could be another whole movie. I don’t mean that as a criticism necessarily, as I probably liked that story as much as the story of his time at the boarding school with Naomi and the rest, which feels like it’s intended as the main story. Both stories supply plenty of interesting, thought-provoking material. They just don’t seem all that closely intertwined, beyond the Jonathan material ultimately supplying the “hook” for the surprise ending.
I won’t say anything in detail about that ending, just that while I’m mostly OK with it, I do wonder how likely it is it could be pulled off, and without undesirable, unintended consequences. As I think it through it just seems there are multiple potential problems or things that don’t fully add up. I’m not sure though; it’s entirely possible that there would be a good response to any such objection I might raise to it.
I’ve had far more positive than negative to say about A Borrowed Identity, and appropriately so. It’s a quality film that I enjoyed and that I recommend. Being honest, though, my subjective reaction to it while watching it was a bit below my eventual assessment of it. I got into it, I cared about the characters and the story, and it reached me emotionally, but I have the sense that each of these things was only true to a more modest degree than is the case for most films that I have a comparably favorable opinion of.