It's so easy to fall behind, as I've managed to do thanks to a very busy couple of days. Last week, I went to a screening of Paper Dolls, an intriguing documentary which opened Wednesday at Film Forum for a two week run. I say intriguing, but I don't know that I can truly endorse the film as successful.
I left the screening and went to meet some friends for lunch. For the rest of the day, I told virtually everyone I ran into that earlier I had seen a documentary about Filipino transvestites, living in Israel and working as caregivers to elderly orthodox Jews (including some Hasidim). Without fails, mouths would drop, at which point I would generally say, "No, I only wish I could have made that up." Of course, the obvious questions that would then be thrown my way would start with, "Is it any good?" followed by longer variations of "Why?" and "How?" Ahhh ... there's the rub.
Filmmaker Tomer Heymann introduces us to a group of Filipinos who have all immigrated to Israel within the previous decade. They are friends who perform in drag as a lip-synching group called the Paper Dolls. They each seem to be wonderfully kind, generous and loving human beings who take their jobs very seriously, often become close -- sometimes even like family -- to those to whom they're providing care, and in general enjoy living in Israel. But their lives there are not easy, and they each exist straddling a fine line of employment; if they lose their jobs, they instantly become illegal immigrants and can be deported.
Heymann focuses on the lives of his five featured personalities Sally, Chiqui, Giorgio, Jan, and Cheska: their daily routines, their ambitions as performers and their relationships with their employers and each others. But what he never examines are those two basic questions: how and why? What made them leave the Philippines in the first place and if so, why Israel? If Israel is actually as potentially unfriendly to immigrants -- gay or otherwise -- why not the US? Or Canada? Or England, which by the end of the film seems almost the obvious choice?What do orthodox Jews, many of whom live in relatively closed communities and have very strict beliefs against homosexuality, look for and employ these people in their homes? If it's so relatively simple to get kicked out of the country (as the film shows), how did they get in and find their jobs in the first place?
These are just a few questions that Heymann completely avoids yet watching the film I found completely necessary. I'm sure there are logical and good answers to each of these, but Heymann doesn't give us a clue. What he does do well, however, is sympathetically portray in each of these people, forcing us to not just sympathize but truly like each of them. They share several traits, most notably a visible and heartfelt love for life as well as others, especially those people who are really their employers. The relationship between Sally and Chaim Amir is particularly touching. The two have a father-child relationship that is likely closer than those had by many members' of the audience. There is genuine affection between the two. Some of the best scenes involve Sally reading in Hebrew to Chaim and watching him try to correct her pronunciation when she makes minor but vital mistakes.
Paper Dolls is by no means boring, and it certainly forces you to feel for these people who do nothing but help others yet are still ostracized and looked down upon by many, and obviously not just in Israel. But in its attempts to grab at your heartstrings, the film ignores vital elements that make its very subject matter so interesting in the first place. Sadly, feeling without understanding just isn't that fulfilling, and so Heymann's film proves to be as thin as real paper dolls.