In Israel, making films during the early years of the state was a difficult enterprise.
With no government funding, creative movie-makers got minimal investment monies and often knocked out low-budget films to a public generally not interested in seeing them. But by the 1980s funds had been created to assist filmmakers, and seed money to jump-start movie production has become more readily available during the last 15 years. The result has been a growth in the number of film schools in Israel, and increasingly in the production of world-class films that can compete on the world market with films from anywhere.
A few decades ago, a filmmaker often would wait seven or eight years before making the next film; today, many Israeli directors are making films every two or three years, and the movies are getting better and better. The result is that an increasing number of Israeli filmmakers now have a body of work that can be seen, studied, and analyzed. One of these filmmakers is Eran Riklis, whose latest film, “A Borrowed Identity,” opens today in New York.
In the post-World War II period, a group of French film critics, writing for the film journal “Cahiers du cinema,” put forward the notion that a movie director places images of that particular filmmaker’s reality on the screen. The critics believed that film directors, the authors of film works, used cinema to give expression to their own world view, and that there often was a common thread running through a filmmaker’s work. In the 1960s, Andrew Sarris, an influential film critic for the Village Voice and a professor at Columbia University, embraced this auteur theory, and pushed the importance of the film architect. Filmgoers began to take note of the creations of individual movie-makers and look at common themes and style, which might serve as the signature of that particular “author.” As a result, students of cinema began paying more attention to the works of individual film directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, and Howard Hawks.
Eran Riklis has turned out to be one of these filmmakers whose films deserve our attention. From his earliest student film in 1984 to today’s new release, he has largely focused his films on how it feels to be the outsider. In his first feature, 1991’s “Cup Final,” he shows how an Israeli soldier taken hostage by Palestinians relates to his captors, with whom he shares a common love of world soccer. By allowing the Israeli rather than the terrorists who take him prisoner to be the other, Riklis allows us a better understanding of the sensibilities of the Palestinian captors. In “Zohar,” made two years later, he put on the screen the story of Mizrahi singer Zohar Argov, who grew up in poverty, became rich and famous, and remained unable to find his balance with his new status. In his 2004 “The Syrian Bride,” Riklis offers the story of a Druze woman living on the Golan Heights who wants to marry a Druze man on the other side of the Syrian border. The film powerfully reflects the unique situation of the Druze, who have strong loyalty to the country in which they live, and how, as former Syrian citizens and now temporary Israeli residents, some Druze live in a sort of no-man’s land. In “Lemon Tree” (2008), we empathize with a Palestinian woman whose only crime is that her home and century-old lemon grove is next door to the minister of defense, thereby making it a potential portal for an attack on the minister. “Playoff” (2011) tells the story of Israeli basketball coach Ralph Klein, a child of Holocaust survivors, who leaves his position in Tel Aviv to go to Germany to coach the West German basketball team. An Israeli Jew coaching Germans. Could there be any better example of the outsider? And in “Zaytoun,” released the next year, an Israeli pilot who is forced to parachute into war-torn Lebanon teams up with a young Palestinian refugee to try and reach Israel.
“A Borrowed Identity” is adapted from two autobiographical novels by Arab-Israeli author and journalist Sayed Kashua, who writes in Hebrew and for years was the poster child for how Arab citizens of Israel not only could find a place in Israeli society, but could succeed. In the film, originally titled “Dancing Arabs,” the gifted Palestinian-Israeli Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) gets a chance at an amazing future when he is accepted into a prestigious Jewish boarding school. Riklis masterfully portrays the gradual successful acceptance of Eyad by his classmates, in particular Nomi (Daniel Kitsis). Eyad also gains the confidence of Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), an Israeli Jewish boy who suffers from muscular dystrophy. We witness the forces that initially will bring Eyad closer to both Yonatan and Nomi, but that eventually lead to strained connection. Riklis effectively contrasts the Arab student in a class of Jews and the young man with MS cut off from the world because of his illness. Each have become outcasts and in the end neither fits in. But they do have each other.
The real issue with which Riklis seems to be struggling is whether the Arab citizen of Israel truly can find a place in Israeli society. Screenwriter Kashua, pointing to his own place as a respected Israeli journalist, believed, at least initially, in that reality. But now, in this film, auteurs Kashua and Riklis ask the question, and we viewers must ponder the reality.
“A Borrowed Identity” is an exceptional film, with amazing writing, direction, and acting. It also has in-your-face issues with which Eran Riklis wants us to struggle, and boy do we struggle.
Eric Goldman is president of Ergo Media, a Teaneck-based distributor of Jewish film. He teaches cinema at Yeshiva University.