Like a short, sharp blow to the solar plexus, Tamar Yarom’s hourlong docu stuns with raw, unfiltered emotion as six Israeli women recount the horrors they saw and perpetrated during their obligatory military service in the Occupied Territories. Behind its almost unbearable directness and unmistakable authenticity, the brilliantly edited docu is assembled with fugue-like precision, counterpointing trauma-laden memories with generic footage of an ongoing Palestinian surreality, the women’s distinctive voices interweaving in complex harmonies. Women Make Movies holds distrib rights to the pic, which has already won multiple awards on the fest circuit.
Yarom reportedly spent four years selecting the six women, as unique in style, outlook and position in the army as they are conjoined by their experience in that two-year stint after turning 18.
Dana, an education officer, adopts the loud, “masculine” delivery she describes as being de rigeur for acceptance as one of the boys, yet her gestures are too expansive, her cynicism edged with hysteria. Meanwhile, the beauteous Rotem, an observer, is too quiet and self-composed, her silences accompanied by odd smiles as she wonders if her friend thought she was kidding when she said she couldn’t wipe the blood off her hands.
Tal struggles with rage, unpredictably triggered by something as commonplace as her infant daughter’s screams. Libi recalls the various “normal” ways of taking revenge for real or imagined slights, while Inbar feels more comfortable in intellectualizing what she calls the “unbearable lightness of death.”
Meytal opens and closes the film with a search for a Lynndie England-type photograph of herself next to a nude corpse with an erection (to see, as the title indicates, if she was smiling). Her pained vulnerability comes across as she puffs cigarettes to regain composure, now that she can no longer escape into alcohol. The viewer is never shown the photograph she finds; instead, the camera focuses on Meytal’s anguished face as she cries, “How the hell did I think I’d ever be able to forget about it?”
The women remember the rush of power, the ability to crook a finger and summon an Arab for no reason, or to leave a line of Palestinians to bake in the sun for 12 hours doing push-ups. All harken back to that Wild West feeling of racing through the streets in an armored vehicle with no one to answer to.
Some speak of attempting to adhere to the rules, but such niceties were inevitably drowned out in a raging sea of testosterone, glimpsed briefly in candid homemovie footage where soldiers roar their solidarity and bloodlust around a mess table. All the women are haunted by actions that no longer seem remotely sane once out of uniform.
Less an indictment of the occupation than a study of its devastating, dehumanizing impact on those who enforce it, “Smiling” reps a particularly revelatory entry in the ongoing feminist examination of war.