Paper Dolls (Strand Releasing, NR)

dvd_paper-dolls.jpgThe subject matter of Paper Dolls is fascinating but the film’s execution is only so-so.







The vagaries of international geopolitics can produce truths stranger than fiction. What novelist could get away with setting his story within a subculture of Filipino transsexuals working in Israel as caregivers, often to elderly Orthodox men? Yet that community exists and is the focus of the documentary Paper Dolls by Tomer Heymann, originally produced as a six-episode series for Israeli television and also released as an 80-minute film which won awards at several major film festivals, including Berlin and Toronto.

When Israel closed its borders to Palestinian laborers in 2001, 300,000 guest workers from other countries were allowed in to do the work young Israelis don’t want to do. That includes caring for their elderly parents, and among those granted visas to fill this gap are the Filipino émigrés Sally, Cheska, Chiqui, Giorgio and Jan. Six days a week they care for their elderly charges in Tel Aviv with great patience and dignity, and on their day off perform for other Filipinos as a lip-synching drag act known as "The Paper Dolls."

They sometimes experience their share of harassment—homophobia and xenophobia are present in Tel Aviv as they are anywhere, and several "men on the street" don’t hesitate to communicate their prejudices toward both transsexuals and Filipinos to the camera—and some hide their secret life from their clients, while others have found acceptance. Most notable is the relationship between Sally and her client Haim: he was initially surprised to learn that she was not a biological woman, but "got over it" as he says and came to regard her as a daughter or niece whom he tutors in Hebrew and gives volumes of poetry by Yehuda Amichai.

The Dolls enjoy their life in Tel Aviv, which grants them more freedom than they would enjoy in their native land, but their situation is precarious: they have no chance to become citizens and loss of their job, through death of their client or for any other reason, will result in immediate deportation. A series of bombings near the Central Bus Station area, where many foreign workers live and work, is followed by a police crackdown. Jan is fired (he says his former employer "has a new Filipino"), Cheska is arrested, and the Dolls warily eye a newspaper story which proposes confining guest workers within a guarded compound of tents: parallels with German concentration camps are all too obvious. Ultimately all five leave Israel, either to work in England or return home to the Philippines.

The subject matter of Paper Dolls is fascinating but the film’s execution is only so-so. Heymann never penetrates beyond the surface of his subject’s lives, and he has an annoying habit of needlessly placing himself, Michael Moore-style, at the center of the story. When so much was cut from the original television series, it’s not clear why some segments were retained, since they don’t connect to the main story and don’t go far enough into their own subject material to be interesting on their own. Exhibit A in this category is Heymann trying drag on for size, so to speak.  Exhibit B would be their ill-fated performance at a trendy nightclub, where they are clearly below the standard expected by the bitchy club patrons, one of whom refers to them as "amateurs from the Central Bus Station."

Paper Dolls is distributed on DVD by Strand Releasing. Further information, including the film’s trailer, is available from The only extra on the DVD is the trailer for Paper Dolls and four other Strand titles: Soap, Mysterious Skin, Time to Leave, and Back Stage. | Sarah Boslaugh

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