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Identity and Non-Traditional Ways of Being

Learning about controversial issues from the movies.

Key points

  • Movies contextualize controversial issues that are difficult for us to grapple with.
  • We can process difficult emotions by putting ourselves in the shoes of film protagonists.
  • By empathizing with the characters, we become cognizant of alternative ways of being.
Radu Bercan/Shutterstock
Source: Radu Bercan/Shutterstock

At a movie festival at a university where I once taught, I attended the screening of A Borrowed Identity (2014) starring Tawfeek Barhom, Razi Gabareen, and Yaël Abecassis.). The Israeli drama is directed by Eran Riklis and is based on the novel Dancing Arabs (2002) by Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua.

The central theme of the movie hinges on an Israeli Arab teenager Eyad’s struggle between maintaining his pride in his Palestinian identity and his yearning to integrate into Israeli society. Eyad is admitted to a prestigious boarding high school in Jerusalem. There, he meets Naomi, a fellow student of Ashkenazi Jewish origin. He subsequently falls in love with her. In his community service, Eyad meets Yonatan, a fellow Jewish student and rock-music lover who suffers from an inherited autoimmune disease (muscular dystrophy) that eventually takes his life. Given the resemblance in appearance between Eyad and Yonatan, the former manages to assume the identity of the latter by swapping identity cards after his classmate’s death. The exchange of identities is a double-edged sword: It grants Eyad privileges that were previously inaccessible to him, e.g., being able to work as a waiter in an Israeli restaurant. However, by assuming a different identity, Eyad also has to give up a part of his former self.

My knowledge of the Arab peninsula and its neighboring states is rather limited and stops at the Qu’ran, fragments of childhood memories of the stories of 1001 Nights, Huntington’s thesis on The Clash of Civilizations, a Middle East survey course from college days, Persepolis, a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, the emigré who tells the coming-of-age story of a young girl in Iran whose childhood is entangled in political turmoil in Iran and spends adolescence reconciling the tensions between her new identity in Europe and her former self — and the sight and smell of the omnipresent Halal street food in New York City. Thanks to the magic power of the silver screen, which enabled me to imagine myself in Eyad’s place and understand the choices he made as a result of his daily struggles of living in an environment that is not always friendly toward a cultural outsider, as well as the cultural ingroup’s perspective concerning the intrusion of foreign influences.

I later integrated the movie into one of my online course modules on co-existence for an advanced educational psychology class. The movie was well-received and the students were eager to share their perspectives on it in our online discussion forum. Many found it easier to understand the arguments made in the readings after having first gained an intuitive feel for the situation by immersing themselves into the reality of Eyad and empathizing with other characters in the movie.

Movies contextualize controversial issues that are difficult to grapple with. Assimilation and acculturation are controversial and hard to define. The Borrowed Identity (2014) brings to life the struggle of trying to fit into a society that holds a stereotypical view of a certain demographic from the perspective of an Arab Israeli teenager.

Adultery, murder, and LGBTQ issues are not often discussed openly in the context of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. In the Israeli drama, The Secrets (2007) starring Fanny Ardant, Ania Bukstein, and Michal Shtamler and directed by Avi Nesher, three plot threads give these sensitive topics a delicate treatment. No definitive answer is prescribed to any of the issues raised, as the artistic intention of the director seems not to be moral preaching but rather provoking critical thinking, by pitting seemingly irreconcilable perspectives against each other, so as to encourage the audience to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

As in the case of A Borrowed Identity, I found my psychology students—many of them seasoned teachers upgrading their teaching credentials—to be keen on learning from the movies, in addition to reading scholarly works that often presented such topics in a more cut-and-dried fashion.

By empathizing with characters in movies, we become cognizant of alternative ways of being. More importantly, we start to become aware that these different ways of being are not always categorically different from one another—e.g., an attribute may exist on a spectrum, rather than fitting neatly into two separate categories that are mutually exclusive or at the opposite ends of two poles that never intersect.

For instance, the character of Naomi from The Secrets has deep faith but still experiences an attraction that is forbidden by what she believes in. In the same film, the character of Anouk can commit adultery and abandon her children in the name of love (although some in her culture may not agree with her definition of love) and take an ex-lover’s life when the latter abandons her. Nevertheless, toward the end of her life, she still has an indomitable will to redeem those sins at all costs while at the same time not feeling a tinge of regret about her love. And Eyad from A Borrowed Identity can take pride in his Arabic roots and have a rebellious streak against his society’s perception of people who share his identity, while at the same time feeling compelled to exchange his Arabic identity with that of a Jewish boy of the same age when circumstance makes it possible.

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