Through a mix-up at a border checkpoint, an Israeli performance artist trades places with a Palestinian suicide bomber in what sounds like a fairly conventional mistaken-identity comedy. But Shira Geffen’s “Self Made” manages to surprise at every turn: The swap is practically an afterthought, rather than a high-concept hook, while politics take a backseat to a pair of well-rounded, cliche-resistant female performances. As real-world tensions escalate between the two sides, prominent fest play should spark significant international interest in this defiantly original comedy, which playfully explores how strong women from conflicting cultures cope with the absurdity of everyday life.
The region may be strained by conflicting ideals, but it’s shoddy, Ikea-style furniture that’s to blame for the accident that shakes a Jerusalem art-world dynamo out of her latest creative rut. Knowing nothing of her background, audiences will instantly identify with Michal (Sarah Adler) when her bed collapses one morning, and she bumps her head hard enough that she can’t entirely remember who or where she is — which suits us just fine, since Michal’s dazed state of amnesia means we’ll have the chance to figure it out together.
Meanwhile, in a refugee camp on the other side of the Palestinian border, a young Arab woman named Nadine (Samira Saraya) is getting ready for work — in the same factory where Michal orders her replacement bed. Nadine’s not all there upstairs, either, but unlike her Israeli counterpart, she can’t blame this disconnect on a concussion. Nadine is lost in her own neighborhood, unable to find her way home without leaving behind a trail of screws, Hansel-and-Gretel-style, and totally out of place at the border crossing, where hip-hop music blasts from the bright green earbuds tucked under her hijab.
Geffen, who won Cannes’ Camera d’Or prize for her 2007 debut, “Jellyfish,” spends the first 10 minutes establishing these two characters and the rest of the pic cutting back and forth between them. Simultaneously cartoonish and complex, the unlikely doppelgangers may represent two radically different cultures, but they also refuse to conform to the cliches we’ve come to expect from either — to the extent that when they eventually do switch identities (an improbable mistake, given that the two women look nothing alike), we realize they may actually be more comfortable living out one another’s fates.
Adler, who also starred in “Jellyfish,” and newcomer Saraya are both bewitchingly watchable actresses, blessed with striking features, mysterious souls and the capacity to surprise at any moment. As Michal tries to piece together her own identity, she’s as shocked as we are to learn of her reputation as a cultural provocateur, though her aggressively feminist art (hilarious videos, matched by an extreme promise to make her uterus into a handbag for the Venice Biennale) seems downright benign compared with Nadine’s decision to strap on a pregnancy bump packed with plastic explosive.
Ideally, all the weirdly creative details Geffen packs into these two women’s personalities would mesh together in some profound or poetic way during the film’s final act, though whatever statement the helmer is trying to make unravels once the two women assume one another’s lives. Even so, the clever, situation-based comedy reaches a crescendo when no one seems to notice the swap. In lieu of jokes, Geffen deals in droll scenarios, using misunderstandings to subvert the ideas of conformity and authority — authority that, given Israel’s 18-year-old age of conscription, falls to kids who have no business carrying guns.
Geffen volunteered for a time with the Women’s Watch group, observing at checkpoints to deter abuse of the Arabs passing through. These scenes, which exude humanism and Joseph Heller-like satire in equal measure, were directly informed by that experience, lending seriousness to a film whose original title, “Boreg,” means “screw.” In both the literal and figurative sense, what Michal and Nadine have in common is that they’re each missing a screw.
Stylistically, Geffen’s fable feels like a throwback to the more impressionistic indies of the ’90s, when directors unconcerned with reproducing documentary reality embraced the idea that their stories unfurled in a world similar, but not identical, to our own: the world of allegory. That’s an extremely liberating position from which she can fashion her surreal bubble: Gorgeous to behold, “Self Made” is carefully art directed so the walls, clothes and furniture (heck, even a bathtub full of crabs) radiate a hypnotic blue, offering a refreshing break from the region’s usual beige blandness.