Israeli female soldiers documentary
To See if I'm Still Smiling is a documentary that looks at six Israeli women who look back on their compulsory military service and tell their own stories, stories which show a tougher side of being in the Israeli military and what the soldiers can come away with.
The six women all served time in the army during the Palestinian uprising in 2000 and on camera they discuss what they did, how they coped with the military life and also how the dealt with the feelings that stuck with them from the events they witnessed and were part of.
Obviously there are some extreme stories to tell, such as the woman who had wanted to be a paramedic and ending up scrubbing corpses to hide any sign of abuse by Israeli soldiers. The story from Reuters through tells us that she is deeply distressed when she sees a photo of her and a corpse.
“How in hell did I think I'd ever be able to forget?”
The Director, Tamar Yarom, was herself in the Israeli army in 1988, serving in the Israeli Defence Force in the occupied territories she witnessed a victim of torture and says she could never forget that event. She was taken into a room where a torture victim who looked extremely horrific.
“It's the kind of picture that stays with you forever...During my service I detached myself. When you try to re-attach yourself afterwards it's painful.”
Afterwards she was told to forget the incident that had nothing to do with her, and she wrestled with the idea of reporting the incident or not.
It's this experience that brought her to make this film and present the view that she does. Ideally she hopes that the film will promote people in the country to think about what is happening, rather than continue to accept what is happening.
“This country is in a coma. With all the bombs and attacks, we are numb...People feel we are in a war of survival and it's better not to criticize soldiers, because they are the ones protecting us.”
She expects that the film will be hit from both the left and the right of beliefs because not only does it criticise the army, but it also shows a very sympathetic portrayal of the soldiers and what they do.
Over at IMC Israel they have more information on the film, and Yarom talks about it in more detail.
"I wanted to make a film that shows admiration for these girls, who are coping with crazy pressure and have daily responsibility for human lives. I got to know female soldiers who served as lookouts, operations sergeants, whose job was to apply make-up to soldiers going undercover as Arabs. A whole world of women on the 'second' line, in 'combat support.' I was impressed by the way they grappled with the difficulties and the psychological pressures. One of the comments I most identify with was by Meytal Sandler at the beginning of the film: 'Sometimes I think that I'm insane, because I have memories that are not connected to reality and maybe never happened. But I know that they did happen because of the intensity with which I feel them today.'"
Some of the accounts here are quite terrifying, and they go further than just the Israel-Palestine conflict, they address issues of every war and of the inhumanity that human's can so easily show each other. The woman who cleaned corpses gives an interesting insight in the article, something that I really suggest you read. Of the photo of herself beside one of the corpses she cleaned, she explains why she wanted to see it again:
"Who wants to deal with the evil within himself, the alienation?...I wanted to see if I was smiling."
Another woman describes what she did and why, and it's here that you start to see some similarities and make connections that go beyond this conflict and into one which the West is much more engaged with. Her friend had been shot in the face the previous day and at the checkpoint she manned she made every Arab that came through line up for her entire twelve hour shift and perform exercises for her in the heat while she shouted at them and asked them why they'd killed her friend. Later she and her squad persued a man who had made obscene gestures at them.
"We took him to one of the alleyways and I started screaming at him. I made him look me in the eye and repeat in words what he'd done, and he of course tried to ignore me. He kept his eyes down. We stripped him until he was only in his underwear and just abused him."
Other stories tell of the ostracism the female soldiers experienced either through being female in a typically male dominated environment, or because one of them reported incidents she had seen to those higher up in command. Again, I really would suggest you read the article by Dalia Karpel on IMC Israel, it tells you much more about the film and is really strong.
To See if I'm Still Smiling sounds a strong documentary, and one which is continuing the quality film-making coming from Israel, particularly on the subject of the continuing hostilities. Beaufort (Bufor) (Filmstalker review) and 5 Days (Filmstalker review) are both great examples of this, perhaps it will continue this trend.