According to a statistic that opens Eran Riklis’s coming-of-age film, which plays as part of this year’s Seattle Jewish Film Festival, “20 percent of Israel’s citizens are Arab.” Drawing from Sayed Kashua’s semiautobiographical novel Dancing Arabs, Riklis (The Syrian Bride, Lemon Tree) focuses on Eyad, a sensitive young man navigating his identity as an ethnic minority in the 1980s and 1990s.
Everyone in Tira considers Eyad a genius, but his future is unclear. When his father, Salah (Ali Suliman), isn’t picking fruit, he's fighting for Palestinian liberation. Eyad tells people he’s a terrorist, but Salah describes himself as a warrior.
When Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom in an effectively low-key performance) moves to Jerusalem for boarding school, he’s fulfilling a dream Salah couldn’t due to his political activities, but he’s more of a minority than ever: struggling to speak Hebrew (he pronounces Deep Purple "Deeb Burble"), studying the Bible, eating Western foods.
As part of a volunteer program, he also provides companionship to Yonatan (Lebanon's Michael Moshonov), a punk kid with muscular dystrophy, whose sarcasm contrasts with Eyad’s polite reserve. Yonatan and his mother, Edna (Yaël Abecassis), become a second family.
By the 1990s, Eyad has a girlfriend (Danielle Kitzis), but he has to keep the relationship secret as his ethnicity continues to attract unwanted attention. Riklis follows him from school and beyond, during which time he finds his voice and makes decisions that perplex his parents—just like any free-thinking young man anywhere.
On the surface, A Borrowed Identity isn’t a political film, but Riklis’s decision not to take sides is, in and of itself, a political move. His choice not to judge Salah, for instance, doesn’t excuse or endorse terrorism. He’s simply more interested in his role as a father, but Salah also represents the past, and this guardedly optimistic film pins its hopes for the future on nonviolent assimilationists like Eyad.