Review: The Other Son. Lorraine Levy (director).Rapsodie Production and Cité Films.
Franco Jewish writer-director Lorraine Levy’s new film examines the Israel-Palestine conflict through the prism of identity and belonging. The film revolves around the story of two boys, a Palestinian Muslim and a Jewish Israeli, who are accidentally switched at birth, the switch being discovered only when one is about to be conscripted into the Israeli occupation forces.
The revelation of the switch initially sends the two youths, Joseph and Yassin, into shock and confusion, forcing them to examine their identity and what it means to belong. Fighting to suppress panic in the wake of the revelation, both young men and their families begin to examine what they’ve always taken for granted about themselves, as well as what they’ve taken for granted about “the other”, whom they have always viewed as their enemy.
Levy brings compassion and humanity to the politics of conflict and struggle. While the film finds strength in the exploration of these universal themes, it is weakened by overly schematic and simplistic attempts to be “even-handed” and to avoid overly politicising the film.
In interviews, Levy has made it clear that she didn’t want to stress one view over the other and wanted a film that “listened to voices on both sides”. This mind-set results in Levy trying too hard to bring symmetry to her characters and their voices, including an idealistic marrying of the aspirations of the switched youths with the aspirations or lives of their biological parents. In attempting to promote such parity, the film ran the very real risk of normalising and whitewashing Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people by glossing over or denying the asymmetric nature of the conflict, which involves on one side a settler-colonial state engaged in ethnic cleansing, apartheid and occupation and on the other side an indigenous people resisting colonisation and occupation.
What saves the film from becoming completely pro-normalisation is Levy’s visual use of locations. Not shying away from filming the apartheid wall, depictions of military checkpoints or the destruction wrought by Israel’s military assaults on the Palestinian people, The Other Son is deeply embedded with pictures of Israel’s occupation and apartheid regime. Levy skilfully counterposes the concrete images of the Zionist state’s oppression of the Palestinians with images of Tel Aviv’s modern, carefree lifestyle, beaches and nightlife.
Of course, Levy’s tale isn’t the first to address the issue of identity and belonging in relation to Israel and Palestine. Fellow Franco-Jewish writer and director Radu Mihailenau similarly addressed such themes in his 2005 film Live and Become. Mihailenau’s film explored the issues from the perspective of an Ethiopian child refugee brought to Israel as part of Operation Moses in 1984. Questions about the politics of identity, Zionism and the nature of the Israeli state are posed much more sharply in Live and Become than they are in The Other Son.
A more direct examination of Palestinian and Israeli identity is the 1969 novella, Returning to Haifa by Ghassan Kanafani, a Palestinian Marxist and co-founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Kanafani, who was assassinated by Israel in 1972, is widely recognised as one of Palestine’s greatest writers.
In Returning to Haifa, Kanafani explored identity and belonging through the plot device of a Palestinian child accidentally abandoned during the chaos of the Zionist assault on Haifa in April 1948. In a narrative woven between the Palestinian Nakba of 1948 and the Naksa of 1967, the parents of the lost child discover 20 years later, in the wake of Israel’s seizure and occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, that their child has been raised as an Israeli Jew and is a soldier in the Israeli occupation forces.
While Levy’s film attempts to have all characters live in an idealised state of mutual understanding, Kanafani’s novella highlights the lack of parity, symmetry and equality between the occupier and the occupied. Kanafani hammers home that identity is something that is created through both the material conditions under which a person lives and the actions they choose to take. Kanafani, unlike Levy, offers a Marxist explanation of identity when his character of Said states: “Isn’t a human being made up of what’s injected into him hour after hour, day after day, year after year?”. Here Kanafani is telling us that it is the material conditions that determine our conciousness, our sense of identity and our more subjective sense of belonging.
Despite its shortcomings, The Other Son is still worth seeing. The film is beautifully shot and well acted. Ultimately it is a humanistic attempt to explore what it means to be “the other”, and in this respect, The Other Son offers much food for thought.