A Borrowed Identity (“Dancing Arabs”)
Culture, Identity and Language
When a Palestinian teen gains admission to a prestigious boarding school in Jerusalem, the incident causes conflict about issues related to culture, identity and language. This is Eran Riklis new film which ironically was cancelled for its screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival because of escalating tensions between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
The film is based on the book by Sayed Kashua, and tells the story of a man trapped between two cultures. Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) grew up with his father heavily involved in freedom fighting for Palestine. Often detained as a terrorist, Eyad’s father had a zealous belief in Palestine and rejoiced, for example, when the first Gulf War commenced. (He changed his tune quickly when he saw how out-matched Iraq was, which served as another defeat for his core values.)
When Eyad gets secondary school, he has the opportunity to attend a prestigious Jewish boarding school. All he really wants is an education but when he gets to school, he faces racial tensions just as he does at home. His father jokingly (but not entirely) suggests he could build the first atomic weapon for Palestine, while his classmates ridicule him for his background. Things become more tense when he starts a relationship with Naomi (Danielle Kitzis), a Jewish girl at his school.
Eyad is pulled in both directions – to be Arab for his family history and to be Jewish to fit in better. Soon, he discovers a way that he can bridge the gap between both worlds, but as he gets deeper into it, he finds that he might have to give up his original identity.
What we see here and, for me, is the main thrust of the film is how the overall Israel/Palestine conflict creates victims in everyday life. Eyad is not in the thick of a military battle, but he is in the middle of a cultural one. Propaganda and racist signs are literally seen throughout the film in the background, warning of dangers in mixing Arab and Jewish heritage. It’s backwards thinking being presented passively as a sign of those times, and it reinforces the unpleasantness of these sentiments yet there is no preaching about them.
The issues tackled here go far beyond military action. We see the struggles of human beings, not armies and not nations— Just people who are the real tragedy of what is going on.
Riklis has directed the film with a very empathetic hand. It allows us to see the silliness of such bitter cultural hatred, but it also shows us that these feelings did not evolve in a vacuum. However, the film also shows that the victims of the conflict are not only those killed on the battlefield but includes those who are killed by circumstance of who they are. There is humor in the film but I found it to be something of a tragedy. There is no resolution here because of the imperfections of the world in which we live.
Israeli director Eran Riklis does quite an effective job of illustrating both the mutual prejudices and the decidedly one-sided power dynamics that talented West Bank Arab youth Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) must overcome to achieve his potential. Because he is the only Arab at his school, he takes some time to fit in but eventually ends up with a Jewish girlfriend, Naomi (Danielle Kitzis), and best friend, Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), who has a progressive form of muscular dystrophy. Despite his apparently successful integration, Eyad’s Arab identity comes back to haunt him repeatedly until one day he uses Yonatan’s passport to get a job as a waiter. Yonatan’s mother Edna (Yaël Abecassis) eventually learns of this, but her reaction is not what you might expect.
This is a very well made film, something we can always expect from Riklis and it provides a great deal to think about. I love the adolescent mind of Eyad who thinks that the best example of integration is to get an Israeli-Jewish girlfriend and he succeeds in this with fellow student Naomi (Danielle Kitzis).
In class, Eyad is surrounded by people who are used to being taught the Israeli point of view for things ranging from history to literature. Not unexpectedly, Eyad’s relatively petty school problems occasionally take a back seat to political events, with the Arab-Israeli conflict heating up several times, including during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the first Gulf War. Despite a terrorism joke or two, the film itself is almost even-handed to a fault, with the smart and affable Eyad managing to become friends with Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), a student with muscular dystrophy he meets through a community-service program.
As we watch we find that there are countless emotions and events constantly fighting for our attention and there is also the sense that the characters around Eyad remain underdeveloped—especially the wpmen, The actors are all perfectly cast and the production values are high. It seems to me that the film is to make Jews and not just Israelis feel comfortable with Arabs. That is, until the finale, when bigoted alarmists may take home a more troubling message. This is another well-intentioned plea for coexistence, though apart from one scene that lays bare, with welcome righteousness, “the disturbing orientalism infiltrating even Israeli intellectual circles, the whole thing is rather too scrubbed and clean.”
Eyad doesn’t fit into his new surroundings at first. He is shy and awkward in Hebrew and does not have the cultural knowledge of his Israeli classmates. Over the course of a few years, Eyad settles into the social element of school life, but most classmates remain wary, and his love affair with Naomi has to be kept a secret. Riklis does a good job of ensuring that many shots almost casually include details such as anti-Arab stickers on telephone booths and the like, and though Eyad’s Hebrew is now native enough to “pass,” a casual sentence in Arabic can get him interrogated by soldiers, especially once the first intifada begins and prejudice against Israel’s Arab population becomes even more obvious and blatant.
“We are taken from a time when separate but quasi-equal seemed like a possibility through the intifada and the Gulf War, when many Arabs expressed knee-jerk support for Iraq largely out of Muslim solidarity and pride. Such events and others that followed made the dream of coexistence all but an impossibility, reflected in Eyad’s understanding that, to fit into Israeli society, he needs to disguise his Arab identity.”