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

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

To See If I’m Smiling, Tamar Yarom’s heartbreaking doc 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?”

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.

On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)

Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.

As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: First Reformed

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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