Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A.K.A. Nadia

A.K.A. Nadia (directed and cowritten by Tova Ascher, 2015), currently playing at Jewish Film Festivals (, poses an extreme dilemma for the protagonist, Maya, also known as Nadia (Netta Shpigelman). Nadia is twenty-year-old Palestinian in 1987, when the film opens, but soon after, having eloped with Nimmer, a member of an opposition organization, perhaps the PLO, she reluctantly takes on a dead Jewish woman’s identity in order to survive a raid in London and make her way back home, presumably the West Bank.
The movie then fast forwards to twenty years later, 2007, and we see Nadia as Maya leading a successful middle-class, Jewish life in Jerusalem. She has a kind and loving politician husband, Yoav (Oded Leopold), two talented adolescent children, and a career as one of Jerusalem’s top choreographers. But once a week she secretly meets her mother, who comes through a border crossing. Her mother is the only other person who knows what happened to Nadia.
Naturally Nadia has feelings about losing her Arab heritage, and she must reflect sometimes on the lie she has led with her Jewish husband and children, particularly in a part of the world where the two cultures of her two identities fiercely hate each other. But we don’t hear such feelings from Nadia, and when the movie reaches its climax, we realize she not only accepts what happened (and owns responsibility for her youthful decisions that led to her deception)—but she also thinks her husband Yoav could try to do the same—“let it go,” resume their lives just they way they were before Nadia’s true identity became known.
But Yoav can’t forget the lie that’s been lived—so many years of it. He’s so stunned by the degree of the betrayal that he can’t even talk about it. Their relationship, their world together, completely implode and die for him, whereas Nadia thinks they can go back and be the way they were. “Don’t you get it?” he says to her.
Here is where the movie becomes a bit murky for the viewer, for its intent is to explore Nadia’s dual identity and the ramifications of that when placed in the political and emotional hotbed of Israel and the Palestinians. But a larger question emerges, causing weaknesses in the story’s overall impact. That Nadia “doesn’t get it” in her last scene with Yoav is downright naïve. And the clashing Jewish-Palestinian cultures isn’t the core problem, though it counts; rather it’s Nadia’s full-blown, years’ long deception that knocks everything out of Yoav and suddenly shifts the movie to a new overarching theme for the viewer—not the intended one of identity betrayal. For, if Nadia and Yoav had originally met and fallen in love as a Palestinian and a Jew then they would have overcome the difficult family and social hurdles to be together. But Nadia’s living, perpetrating, an egregious lie for years with her loved ones loses credibility, for the audience wonders what did she tell him when they fell in love, when they courted, and all through those years of closeness as a family? How did she describe him her Jewish roots—her parents, siblings, relatives, hometown, schooling—everything to do with her Jewish past. Don’t they every visit her Jewish past? And if she made up all those details to give herself a past—everyone dead, everyone emigrated, this school, these friends—then she would have been consciously telling lie after lie and duping him, whereas in the movie, all we see is a normal, happily functioning family.
Related to this missing and crucial data is: how did Nadia learn Jewish customs and traditions as if born to them? How did she raise her children with them, perform ritual holidays? In the movie, we see none of the family’s Jewish life, and if we had seen it, we would have thought about the Nadia’s incredible living lie, making it harder to appreciate her character. And that is exactly what her husband confronts—the whole big picture of the lie she has perpetrated on her unsuspecting family, gravely scarring their lives and lowering her own integrity. “Don’t you get it?” he says. That she doesn’t really get it, at least in the moment we viewers witness, becomes the larger question of the movie, overriding the identity intent. Nadia’s lack of understanding or vision for what Yoav has absorbed—her naïveté—are problematic for the movie, for we have seen that she knows about her leftist daughter’s protesting of Israeli policies; we hear with her when Yoav says that often he doesn’t like his job, which acts against Palestinians, and so she has to face daily her colossal betrayal, which conflicts with her naïveté—again, muddling the movie. Even more, when Nimmer returns from exile as an EU attaché, Nadia seems to know how he’s been living those twenty years, as she tells her mother about his movement from cave to cave as a hunted terrorist. Her awareness of all that has happened doesn’t jive with her last scene with Yoav, when she asks him to “let it all go,” thus shifting the point of the movie to her mental condition and character, rather than the original intent of her dual identity.
This is a thought-provoking story with flaws, including the long silences between characters, which are remarkably true to life, but also difficult to sustain in the movie format. The constant return to dance rehearsals feels repetitive, even though each rehearsal advances the plot or Nadia’s growing tension. For all of the deep pain Nadia has gone through—her “ruined life”—and the just as deep pain and ruined life it causes Yoav, how deep do our own audience feelings go for Nadia? Because she doesn’t voice what she feels about her lies and because she knowingly pursued a life that damaged her loved ones’ lives, we don’t really sympathize with her as deeply as the movie would like us to do. We watch but we don’t cry. Indeed we feel more for Yoav than Nadia. One of the film’s messages is that words don’t exist when events, troubles, or tragedies go this deep in the individual. The ending reiterates just that—when daughter and mother reunite after five years, but no words are exchanged for there are no words all-encompassing enough to express what has happened in their family life. Ironically, without words, our feelings as an audience respond less.