Movie review: Nadia’s dilemma

A Palestinian woman lives life as a Jew in Tova Ascher’s new film

AKA Nadia (photo credit: PR)
AKA Nadia
(photo credit: PR)
Hebrew title: Nadia Shem Zmani
Directed and co-written by Tova Ascher
With Netta Shpigelman, Ali Suliman, Oded Leopold, John Hurt
Running time: 115 minutes
In Arabic and Hebrew. Check with theaters for subtitle information.
The film AKA Nadia has a fascinating premise: What would it be like for a Palestinian woman to pose as an Israeli Jew for decades?
But AKA Nadia, with an overly literal screenplay and little nuance, can’t live up to the ambitious agenda its director/co-writer Tova Ascher, a well-known film editor, has set for herself.
The movie goes back and forth between the period in which the heroine, Nadia, is a Hebrewspeaking Palestinian girl in Israel who has just finished high school, and the present day, when she is in her 30s.
The early part of the film, which sets up the whole situation, is especially problematic because Netta Shpigelman, the actress who plays Nadia, is clearly older than she is meant to be in these scenes. The filmmakers seem to have tried to cover this up by giving her a hair-do that hides a lot of her face, but it doesn’t work. All things being equal, this wouldn’t have been so bothersome - older actors play younger versions of themselves a lot in movies - but I found it distracting.
The young Nadia has fallen in love with Nimmer (Ali Suliman), a member of the PLO. The two meet in secret, hiding the relationship from her family, who would disapprove. When he is relocated to London, he arranges for her to come along. They marry secretly, and she lives an isolated life in London. When he stops coming to see her, she thinks he has been killed, and there no one is there to help her. Without any papers or income, she takes a job in a laundry. Eventually, she makes contact with one of the customers she delivers laundry to, a man only known by his order number, 347, who is played by John Hurt, the acclaimed British actor who passed away last week. He gets her a fake passport, but the passport is for a Jewish Israeli. Desperate to get back home, she takes the passport and goes back to Israel, where she begins to live as a Jewish woman.
Cut to about 15 years later. Known as Maya, she is married to a successful government official, Yoav (Oded Leopold), raising two children and working as a successful choreographer. At work she is demanding, and her dancers admire her but often fear her. Secretly, she meets with her mother but otherwise has cut all ties to her Palestinian past. When her company is scheduled to perform a dance in which there will be a collaboration with Arabs, Nimmer turns up, on the committee designated to coordinate the performance. Her past catches up with her, and she is forced to confront it and deal with her Jewish family’s feeling of betrayal over the fact that she has lied to them for all these years.
Questions of identity can be complex, but here the story skims the surface, with no surprises or subtext. Does Nadia enjoy her Jewish identity, with its status and perks, on some level, or is it all just torment for her? It isn’t clear. It might have been funny if this Palestinian woman were secretly enjoying bossing around the Jewish dancers, but it isn’t that kind of movie. What we get instead is a very straightforward look at how she is forced to admit the truth to those around her, and it plays out in predictable ways. For example, Nadia/Maya and her husband tell the story of the day they met at a party where she started dancing. Later, we see a flashback to this moment, and it’s exactly as they described it. Seeing it acted out adds nothing to the story, and there are more moments like this in the film.
The actors all give good performances, and Netta Shpigelman is impressive in the lead. But if you’re really interested in issues of Jewish/Palestinian/ Israeli identity, you might want to see Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between or the upcoming Personal Affairs by Maha Haj, which deal in complex and moving ways with the day-to-day lives of Palestinians in Israel. Their identities are confused enough without any contrived plots.