New (and Startling) Images from Israel

Between mother and child, the questions of gender

“Ima, Lo Haragti Et Ha-Bat Shelach” (“Mom, I Didn’t Kill Your Daughter”) is a documentary on a topic not often approached: transgender identity in an Israeli context. The film poignantly maneuvers its way through the challenges in a gender-role-laden society for Lior, the person born female who will soon transition to male, and his already gender-transitioned partner, Yuval. The JCC Manhattan’s annual Faigeleh Film Festival recently screened this offering from Israeli director Orna Ben Dor.

The story centers primarily on Lior’s transition from female to male, and opens with a string of self-made video journals marking various stages of Lior’s evolution. Lior’s complex gender identity unveils itself as a pony-tailed, high-pitched Lior blares back from the screen, lamenting his feminine appearance. In explaining to us his discomfort in a feminine body and the sense of agreement he feels identifying as male, the audience begins to connect to Lior’s experience. As we witness Lior’s presentation as male it feels inconceivable to place him into the accepted standards of femininity. When he emerges from his mastectomy procedure exhilarated, the viewer appreciates his excitement as reconciliation between his outer appearance and his inner feelings take shape.

Simultaneously Lior’s partner, Yuval, who transitioned seven years ago, begins the next phase of his identity by changing his legal documents to stipulate “male,” a process heretofore unknown in Israel. His story of difference reinforces Lior’s experience and conversely confounds Lior’s childhood dreams of heterosexual normalcy. In exploring their relationship, the film reveals the dividing line between gender and sexuality.

As the challenges the two men face unfold, Lior’s mother, Rivkah, stands in their midst, struggling to accept the loss of her daughter and the emergence of an unknown son. She laments Lior’s changes and doesn’t recognize his new voice; our sympathies are with her as she listens, stunned, to the details of a mastectomy. Though Rivkah maintains her love, and goes with Lior to the surgery, the audience too feels caught between the divergent wishes of mother and child.

Through the evolving relationships of Lior, Yuval and Rivkah, Ben Dor reminds her viewers gender should never be taken for granted. The film portrays gender-variant identity, exploring the profound role gender plays in the lives of transgender and genderqueer individuals.

On Camera, Israeli Women Soldiers Speak

by Elizabeth London

“So you’re the [one] who squealed on us,” a male superior officer in the Israeli army accuses Dana, after she tried to report that his unit of the army had looted from an Arab village. In a documentary film now making the rounds of film festivals, Dana, an education officer, recounts how that incident taught her to keep quiet; that as a woman she was just supposed to be sweet and make sure her hair smelled good. Dana and the five other female soldiers interviewed in Tamar Yarom’s new and chilling documentary, “To See If I’m Smiling,” decided not to remain silent; here they share stories of their past in the army.

Men’s war stories seem to trump those of women, the filmmaker explained in a recent Q&A following a screening of “Smiling” (her second film). After her own service in 1988 and even today, she said she sees no outlet for female soldiers to talk about their own experiences. Few women—and only one of these interviewees—served as combat soldiers; women have been used in combat only since 2000. However, their non- combat roles were also crucial, demanding or distressing. These six women, stationed in either the West Bank or Gaza Strip, relate their moral dilemmas and disclose the guilt, regret, shame and anger they still hold years later.

Israel is the only country with compulsory military service for women and at 18, post-high school, women serve for two years in a wide variety of jobs. They enter as teenagers but grow up instantly, whether they must clean a corpse, inspect Arab women who are wearing only bras and panties or club protestors in the street. The women soldiers in this film report dealing with “struggling to remain humane,” “the unbearable lightness of death,” and “a black past that I want to erase.”

Originally titled, “No Place for a Lady,” Yarom aptly notes that the movie is more about an extreme situation than about gender. The occupation is portrayed as the real tragedy in this film. These interviews, accompanied by archival footage, reveal precisely this: that the grave effects of the war reach everyone.

One story, tied to the film’s title, awakens haunting resonance to Abu Ghraib. Meytal, a medic, hesitantly describes taking a photo of herself beside a Palestinian corpse, then becomes ashamed, and tries to forget the incident. She says that she still wonders about the picture and wants to see if she looks different, if she is smiling in it. When in the end she does look at the photo, which remains concealed from the audience, she delivers the final line of the film: “How in the hell did I ever think I’d be able to forget about it.”