To See if I’m Smiling

To See if I’m Smiling


Reviewed by: Keith Hennessey Brown

As is well known, Israel is the only country in the world with compulsory military service for women. With few exceptions, all young Israeli Jewish women are called up at 18 years of age and then spend two years in active duty alongside their male counterparts.

This bold Israeli documentary from Tamar Yaron presents six young women's experiences serving in the Occupied Territories / Gaza Strip through a combination of their direct to camera monologues and illustrative archival footage.

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The key themes that emerge are how an imbalance of power inevitably creates the circumstances for the routine abuse of power, and what the particular consequences of this are for women when they are placed in what would conventionally be thought of as a masculine environment.

The filmmakers provide little background context to the women's lives before their draft, although footage of passing out parades and barrack-room hi-jinks eloquently convey that they are just like everyone else of their age. No-one seems massively privileged nor impoverished nor to have yet developed any particular agenda. Rather, it is just something that they, as Israeli Jews, must do for their country.

We likewise learn little directly about the women's lives after they have finished their service, other than what they wish to tell us. And it is here that the genius of the film is most in evidence. Simply put, it's about before going to Gaza, being there, and recovering and reflecting on what happened there.

Thus, for example, Rotem the observer recalls her first experience in spotting some Palestinian youths throwing rocks at passing traffic and then being asked to pick them out of the identification parade after the troops she was spotting for had rounded them up. She worried that she might have identified the wrong Palestinians, but was told not to concern herself with this by a more experienced commanding officer, who indicated that they would be made to confess anyway.

Intercut with what could be the actual footage, similar stock footage, or something shot in the same style by the filmmakers themselves, the result is chillingly revealing of a context where it often simpler and easier to reduce the other to the status of an anonymous non-person who must be guilty.

Still more horrifying and heart-wrenching, however, is the incident recounted by field soldier Libi from which the film takes its English-language title: One night, the body of a Palestinian who had been killed during the day's operations and which she had hosed down in preparation for delivery to his family developed an erection. She and some of the female medical officers then posed for pictures beside the corpse.

The impact of both images is further heightened by the way in which they emphasise the very technology of cinema itself and its eerie parallels with that of warfare: choose a target, point and click, record or kill.

Libi's story likewise puts another slant on welfare officer Tal's memory of passing by a mosque playing We've Got The Power rather than a call to prayer, showing that a casual joke at the expense of the other exists on the same continuum, one that it is all too easy for the normal individual to slide dangerously along, especially when group dynamics make resistance difficult.

To their credit, all the women except Tal seem to have resisted the worst excesses, while she herself clearly expresses remorse, guilt and shame and the effects of post-traumatic stress in turning to alcohol in an attempt to forget the incident.

Tamar Yarom must be thanked for making this documentary because of the simple fact that it itself transcends groupthink, insofar as a similar piece made by anyone from another background would likely be perceived as having an explicit agenda, whether anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist or anti-Jewish. For what she and her subjects convincingly show is that, no matter our religious or other beliefs, the trauma, pain, fear and suffering caused by conflict are universal.

One desperately hopes no-one attempts to label her as a self-hating Jew for exposing this truth.

Reviewed on: 22 Jun 2008
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Candid revelations about things seen and done in the Israeli military.

Read more To See if I’m Smiling reviews:

Andrew Robertson ****

Director: Tamar Yarom

Year: 2007

Runtime: 60 minutes

Country: Israel


EIFF 2008

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