The French film-maker Lorraine Levy has told a provocative and moving story in “The Other Son” about an accidental baby-switch in a Haifa hospital during a Scud missile attack in the first Gulf War. A Muslim Palestinian-born baby boy consequently came to be raised in a Jewish-Israeli home and a Jewish-Israeli baby was raised in a west-bank Muslim Palestinian home.
The error was discovered when Joseph (now 18) went for a blood test before entering his mandatory Israeli military service, and his mother, a physician, found that her son’s blood type was unlike either hers or her husband’s. The hospital administration sought out the records and discovered the error, brought the two families together and the drama unfolds.
Many critics found the scenario forced and unlikely. Perhaps! However, the drama poses the existential question – “Who am I?” Am I the product more of nature than nurture, biology than environment, DNA than religion/culture/nationality?
The confusion is palpable for the central characters in the film. The two fathers (played by Pascal Elbe and Areen Omari) first want to hide the newly discovered identities of their sons and bear quietly the pain and confusion to avoid public embarrassment and shame. The mothers (played by Emmanuelle Devos and Khalifa Natour) yearn to hold and kiss their birth sons. The two younger sisters are thrilled to have new brothers. The older Palestinian brother Bilal (played by Mahmood Shilabi) suddenly regards his formerly beloved younger brother Yacine (played by Mehdi Dehbi) as his enemy.
The film-maker avoids spending much time on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in lieu of telling the personal story of two families struggling to comprehend and integrate a new and confusing truth.
Yacine (the Palestinian raised Israeli-born son) standing next to Joseph (the Israeli raised Palestinian- born son – played by Jules Sitruk) says “Isaac and Ishmael, sons of Abraham!” thus shining a light on their Biblical familial ties.
Joseph, the best student in his rabbi’s yeshiva who had strongly identified as an Israeli Jew, is now no longer certain who he really is. His rabbi tells him that Jewish identity is a “state” and he can convert, but he is offended and alienated. He tells his mother, “You mean I’m the other one? And the other one is me?…I’ll have to swap my kippah for a suicide bomb.”
He says to Yacine, “I can’t feel Jewish anymore. I don’t feel Arab either. What’s left?”
Yacine muses, “I’m my worst enemy, but I must love myself anyway.”
Both sons are drawn to know their birth parents and siblings, and they travel to the other side. The women’s hearts open immediately. The men, burdened by pride, machismo and hate melt more slowly.
The mid-part of the movie has Joseph and Yacine exploring each other’s worlds and becoming friends. The two young actors successfully play layered characters who wonder about the lives they could have lived and the parents they would have known and not known. Their situation reveals the absurdity of arbitrary divisions defined by religious and national identities.
The question before each young man is who they are and what they will become?
The director allows them to be quiet on screen, to not react explosively, and to dwell in their confusion and crisis that they might find greater clarity and a new way to think and be in the world.
The movie concludes with an act of violence against Joseph by street toughs on a Tel Aviv beach. Both Yacine and his older brother Bilal (who has come around to accept Yacine and Joseph as his two brothers) rush to the injured brother’s aid. In the hospital, Yacine told Joseph, “I called your parents.” Joseph asked, “Which ones?”
I loved this film for the hopeful possibilities it offers for Israelis and Palestinians once a two-state solution is achieved and peace is given a chance – Imshallah/B’ezrat haShem!