In Tamar Yarom’s film six young Israeli women talk about their experiences during compulsory military service in the occupied territories.
The women describe their roles in the physical and psychological abuse of Palestinians as well as their deliberations over alerting the press to the ritual abuse. The film is an exploration of how these women might face up to and deal with these memories and responsibilities. The title is a line from the functional protagonist — a woman who wants to track down a photo of herself taken beside a dead Palestinian with an erection — “to see if [she’s] smiling”.
The youth of the women is striking, as is the ease with which they slip into abusive group behaviour and even individual impulsive acts of violence. Equally striking is the courage that it appears to take to confront their pasts — pasts shared by many other Israelis.
Yarom explains that her choice to focus on women was in part because women’s stories are rarely heard and are seen as being “minor” in comparison to the more “extreme” experiences of male Israeli soldiers. The significance of being a woman in the Israel military is a theme — one woman mentions the need to somehow de-sex by wearing androgynous clothing, whilst another describes an encounter during a conflict with a woman and her child and the look in the mother’s eyes when they meet hers. They all point out the exclusive masculinity of the army although one suggests that being a woman in such an environment made her feel like she had special status.
The film closes with its “protagonist” finding the photo of herself and the dead Palestinian. The viewer does not get to see the photo but they do get to see her looking at it and struggling to grasp what it means. We are left with an image of her and all the women in the film as suffering psychological after-effects, including guilt, emotional distress, alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder amongst others.
Yarom states that though her intention was to leave the women seemingly broken by their experience, the reality is very different. In fact, many of the women have gone on to be left-wing political activists, speaking out against the conflict.
Given that Yarom identifies as left-wing — saying she sees collective organisation from below, rather than appeals to politicians, as the only solution to the conflict — her choice to leave out the real-life conclusions of these women’s stories is puzzling.
On one hand the exclusion does represent the unsolved nature of the conflict, the pain it involves on a personal level and what she may see as the irreparable damage resulting. On the other, however, it seems to rob the women of their empowerment through making the film, through speaking out about their experiences and through their politicisation — removing from them the power and agency to really deal with their situation (though credit must be given to the portrayed power and agency involved in confronting it).
Whilst the wider context seems to take precedent and importance over the individual women’s stories, nothing is explicitly included about Yarom or the women’s attitude to that context.
Despite these contradictions, however, the film takes an unusual angle and leaves the viewer thinking about a less well-known aspect of Israeli society.