Matters Of Identity, Mideast Style
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Matters Of Identity, Mideast Style

The opening and closing night offerings in the Israel Film Center Festival deal with a similar theme in very different ways.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

In the turbulence of the contemporary Middle East, a little thing like personal identity is fragile, evanescent and in jeopardy. That would seem to be the message of the opening and closing night films on display at this year’s weeklong Israel Film Center Festival, which begins June 4.

Eran Riklis opens the event with the New York premiere of “A Borrowed Identity,” scripted by popular Israeli Arab novelist Sayed Kashua from his novel “Dancing Arabs.” The closer is also a New York premiere. “Self-Made,” written and directed by Shira Geffen, reunites her with Sarah Adler, who starred in “Jellyfish,” Geffen’s previous feature. Both films involve an exchange of identities, but they couldn’t be more dissimilar.

“A Borrowed Identity,” like its literary source, is a bildungsroman that traces the youth of a young Israeli Arab, Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom), as he picks his way through the minefield of ethnic identity and Jewish-Arab conflict. Although there are moments of levity, “Borrowed” is essentially the latest installment in the director’s ongoing search for the human side of the crisis. As in his best films, “The Syrian Bride,” “The Lemon Tree” and “Cup Final,” Riklis is trying to find some reason for optimism, but the material stubbornly refuses to provide one. Instead, it is his own dogged commitment to a cinematic humanism that is the most hopeful element in the film.

Although “A Borrowed Identity” pivots on the literal event invoked in its title, the name of the film also serves as a reminder of the uniquely ambiguous status of the Israeli Arabs. Eyad encounters the expected racism in the larger society, but finds allies among his classmates at the elite arts school he attends in Jerusalem. He also becomes involved with someone even worse off than he, Yonatan (Michael Moshonov), whose muscular dystrophy has already put him in a wheelchair. The problem with “A Borrowed Identity” is that, despite some very nice acting, the film is sluggishly paced and too often feels like a rather obvious version of a ’50s problem picture. And yet, against all odds, the final 15 minutes is genuinely moving, as Riklis’ complex language of camera movement pays emotional dividends.

If “A Borrowed Identity” sinks under the weight of its own earnestness, by contrast, “Self-Made” skips along, buoyed by the helium-like lightness of its own surreal humor. It’s the sort of film in which a famous Israeli artist, Michal (Adler) switches places with a Palestinian factory worker, Nadine (Samira Saraya), and no one seems to notice, not even husbands and lovers, despite the two women looking nothing like one another. It’s the sort of film in which a mysterious bouquet is delivered to Michal by a young Palestinian boy who will, 80 minutes later, give her an identical bouquet under even more unlikely circumstances.

In short, Geffen has taken the absurdist, almost cartoonish strain of her first feature, “Jellyfish,” and expanded on it, while losing some of its twee qualities (perhaps by losing her co-director, husband Etgar Keret). Some of the earlier film’s themes remain the same, of course: the capriciousness of fate, the stifling nature of women’s daily lives in both Israel and Palestine and the weird outcroppings of candy colors in the midst of the most mundane settings, suggesting the risibility underpinning reality.

The film opens with a long take of Michal asleep on her bed, which suddenly gives way under her, dropping her to the floor where a bump on the head knocks big holes in her short-term memory. With that device conveniently in place, Geffen assaults her with a procession of stunningly obtuse journalists, photographers and workmen, culminating in the delivery of a new bed from the insanely efficient ETACA (an Ikea-like furniture purveyor). The bed, of course, can’t be completed because it is missing a small piece, which gives Michal the opportunity to tell someone that she’s “lost a screw.” Her path will cross repeatedly and mysteriously with Nadine’s until, through a series of misadventures, they exchange roles. The result is refreshingly oblique, grounded in the Israeli reality but just fantastic enough to be funny in unexpected ways.

Dani Menken’s documentaries, “39 Pounds of Love” and “Dolphin Boy,” are both films in which a literal journey also is a spiritual and metaphorical one. His new fiction film, “Is That You?” attempts to repeat that structure, but his protagonist, Roni (Alon Aboutboul) is neither physically challenged nor a victim of trauma like the central figures in the other two films. Rather, he is a 60-year-old movie projectionist who has been fired from his job in Tel Aviv and decides to try to locate an old flame, now supposedly in the United States. At the outset of his search he encounters a filmmaking student, Myla (Naruna Kaplan de Macedo), who inveigles him into helping her shoot her movie about lost chances and regrets, footage from which gives “Is That You?” it’s ramshackle structure. Despite the presence of the novelist Nevo Eshkol as co-writer, the result is alternately slack and saccharine.

New Directors/New Films has become a reliable source of Israeli film premieres in New York in the past decade, and two of the films included in the Israel Film Center’s event had their first screenings in that festival.

Tom Shoval’s “Youth” is a frequently disturbing blend of family melodrama and crime film in which a rapidly declining middle-class family in a Tel Aviv suburb struggles with growing debts and shrinking income. The young adult sons of the family decide to kidnap the daughter of a wealthy Orthodox family, with results that stop just short of the farcical. Shoval treats the material with deadly seriousness, though, using the brothers’ behavior as a lens for examining machismo in contemporary Israeli culture.

“The Kindergarten Teacher,” Nadav Lapid’s second feature, is a slow-burning drama in which the title character, played with great nuance by Sarit Larry, gradually becomes obsessed with a seeming prodigy. As in his debut film, “Policeman,” Lapid paints his picture with precision, a welter of brilliantly worked-out camera movements that capture his protagonists within the restless, compulsive energy that finally drives them in circles. In the end, “The Kindergarten Teacher” is not all that dissimilar from its predecessor, with an impulsive act of rebellion that cannot succeed confirming Lapid’s Yeatsian apocalyptic vision, his conviction that “the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Disquieting, no doubt, and one may reject its predictive powers, but as a piece of filmmaking, “The Kindergarten Teacher” is an intoxicating un-fun ride.

The Israel Film Center Festival is presented June 4-11 by the JCC in Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue), which will host most of the screenings. For schedule, venues and other information, go to www.israelfilmcenter.org/festival.

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