Film-Forward Review: [PAPER DOLLS]

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The Paper Dolls in performance
Photo: Strand Releasing

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Written & Directed by Tomer Heymann.
Produced by Claudia Levin (Cala), Stanley Buchthal, & Heymann.
Director of Photography: Itai Raziel.
Edited by: Lavi Ben Gal.
Music: Eli Soorani.
Released by: Strand Releasing.
Language: Hebrew, English & Tagalog with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: Israel. 80 mins. Not Rated.

This documentary is an absorbing portrait of Filipino transsexuals who work as caregivers for the elderly in Israel, but in their free time perform as drag queens called the Paper Dolls. Besides gender and sexual orientation, the group is caught in the middle of many fronts: language, religion, race, class, and nationality, all compounded by Mideast tensions, a confluence that raises the film’s appeal for multiple audiences. Writer/director Tomer Heymann has whittled his original television series of six half-hours down by half, and follows five outgoing, articulate individuals born as men who are struggling to find financial, personal, and expressive freedom in Israel against great odds.

Beyond the U.S. TV reality series TransGeneration about college transsexuals (which also happened to include an immigrant from the Philippines), these “half-men, half-women,” as people they meet describe them, are 15 to 20 years further along in their self-realization of reconciling their inner woman and outer appearance. They know who and what they are; other people have problems dealing with that.

Although the group appreciates the freedom to do their Kinky Boots-like routines and marvel at Tel Aviv’s first Gay Pride parade, their relationship to the gay community becomes problematical in an episode that is particularly unsettling. It’s not clear if Heymann bumbled into inadvertently hurting their feelings after he helps them prepare at his mother’s house for an audition. Thrust into a writhing scene like out of Babylon, the fictional nightclub in the TV series Queer as Folk, they are dressed up as heavily made-up Japanese geishas in exchange for getting to do, briefly, their own act. The manager’s insistence on this exchange has a racist tinge, and a competing drag queen bitchily dismisses them as “amateurs from the bus station,” referring to their neighborhood of poor foreign workers.

Heymann continually inserts himself into the film, even more so than Michael Moore. While his frank questions can be intriguing, his repetitive incantation of extreme discomfort with looking like a woman seems as if he protests too much, coming across as a gay man with his own hang-ups. This attitude is better expressed by the strong man-on-the-street reactions to “that kind,” such as from a cab driver and barbers. Everyone here makes cultural generalizations about everyone else. Heymann clearly sees Israelis as prejudiced, but there are only a handful of places in the world where these transgendered individuals wouldn’t get second looks from passersby. Though the film’s only biological woman is the filmmaker’s mother in somewhat staged interactions, any modern woman walking the streets of an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in summer garb would get stares at the least and feel restrained. We only hear about one long-term romantic relationship, ironically with an Arab torn between one Filipino, Sally, and a relationship more acceptable to his family.

Paper Dolls illuminates the shadowy post-Intifada world of foreign workers in Israel that resulted from the country blocking Palestinian workers, also incidentally explored in the documentary No. 17. Religion, too, becomes yet another issue for these Catholics in the Jewish state when Sally reluctantly has to forego attending Christmas Mass; it’s just another work day in Israel.

The film’s tone shifts with the harsh reality of life and politics in Israel. A bomb goes off practically next to the filmmaker during an interview; a news story ominously reports how the neighborhood of illegal workers is afraid to help a police investigation; and the jittery government harshly cracks down with new rules that entrap the group members – their employment by individuals makes it difficult to obtain work permits. Sally makes pointed comparisons to Nazi Germany, referring to a proposal for putting illegals in tent camps, saying they look like concentration camps.

The resiliency of the Paper Dolls defies the fragility of their metaphorical name as they find ways to not just survive but prevail over the what biology, culture and geopolitics sends their way. This film respects them and applauds their efforts. Nora Lee Mandel
September 6, 2006



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