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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2008: To See If I’m Smiling, Take One

The film ends in an ambiguity as absolute as our own war in Iraq.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2008: To See If I’m Smiling
Photo: Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Tamar Yarom’s heartbreaking doc, To See If I’m Smiling, about women soldiers in the Occupied Territories, gets its title courtesy the medic who looks nauseous as she admits that she’d like to find the photo taken of her and a dead body with an erection “to see if I’m smiling.” Interspersed with cathartic talking head interviews (with six women reminiscing about their mandatory two-year military service—Israel is the only country in the world that demands this of its eighteen-year-old female citizens) are gritty shots of the dusty downtrodden Territories, which have become a virtual war zone in recent years. The faces of these emotionally scarred former soldiers, the memories still very much alive in their eyes, speak louder than any of their disturbing, horrific words.

“Who wants to deal with the alienation inside them? Who wants to deal with that?” the medic asks rhetorically, noting that she never spoke of her trying experiences to anyone upon returning to civilian life, choosing booze instead. And it’s easy to see why. The youthful brunette chose to be a medic so she could help people, only to end up in Hebron, dodging bullets to rescue fallen soldiers. (After her first “incident” on the day she arrived, her commanding officer welcomed her, then ordered pizza.) Then there’s the “observer” who guided soldiers to suspects via radio—a very powerful job and one with heavy consequences, such as the accidental killing of a Palestinian boy—and the operations sergeant who got a rush from ordering strangers around. After witnessing coerced confessions and officers covering up reports, the astute women begin questioning the morality of duty, and struggled to maintain some semblance of humanity—though not for long.

“I really don’t know why,” one says, referring to her negligence in reporting abuses. The education officer who expounds on the constant “yelling” in the squads, how she found herself hiding her “female characteristics” and thus rising to the volume of the men, has an answer to that. After reporting an incident of looting, she was banned from the company she squealed on for four months. Regretting this high-minded act, she never did so again. Peer pressure had trumped dignity. A welfare officer mentions the jokes played at the expense of the Palestinians, the thrill of watching a bombing. The desperation in these women’s voices, the words pouring from them with the force of a water main break, is perhaps a reaction to the “numbness” they acquired while serving—“not the time for soul-searching,” the medic offers. “The war takes on a different dimension,” she adds when recounting her first loss: a baby girl, for which she was congratulated on her “first casualty,” then forced to move on to the next patient, no time to acknowledge, let alone grieve.

A combat soldier cries as she remembers a fallen colleague and how her hatred for all the Arabs she detained that fateful day erupted into sadistic punishment as she made them do push-ups and bake in the desert heat. (Naturally her comrades allowed her to get away with this.) Via voiceover explaining the humiliating strip searches conducted on Palestinian women, and through images of checkpoints at which families crowd like cattle to slaughter, “the unbearable lightness of death” described takes shape. The medic is ordered to clean a corpse so that the Palestinian Authority won’t see the signs of torture once the body is returned. Like all the young women, still fighting to be strong soldiers till the tears overwhelm, she cries as she repeats that she “can’t be repelled by” the corpse (it’s her job!)

The education officer elaborates on the many pictures with dead bodies that soldiers took—the normalcy of it all. When everything is abnormal, “the abnormal fits,” she offers, later adding, “I made up a bereavement kit so I could function quickly.” The combat soldier tells of ordering an Arab to strip, humiliating and abusing him for gesturing rudely at her. “It’s part of me, part of what I go through every day,” says the observer responsible for a boy’s death—she deals with the trauma by joking about “not being able to get the blood off” her hands. From this latter day Lady MacBeth to the medic who finally locates the picture of the corpse with the hard-on, the film ends in an ambiguity as absolute as our own war in Iraq. Unable to look at the photo she declares, “How in the hell did I ever think I’d be able to forget about it?”

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from June 16—30.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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