Guns and Ghosts in the House

Lynne Rogers

To See if I’m Smiling
Directed by Tamar Yarom 
Distributed by A Women Makes Movies 2007, 60 min

My Home – Your War
Directed by Kylie Grey
Distributed by A Women Makes Movies 2006, 52 min

TIn a recent postcolonial trend, fiction humanizes the villain, the torturer, the collaborator and the occupier. Now, the documentary that won multiple, well-deserved awards, “To See if I’m Smiling,” elicits a painful sympathy for the Israeli female soldiers who, like so many other soldiers before them, participate in sustained acts of cruelty while a tiny voice of their former selves momentarily dreams of protest. Six young women who have fulfilled their compulsory two-year military service speak to the camera without dramatics as they recount the demons of serving in the occupied territories. In an emotional contrast of content and form, the film juxtaposes quiet ordinary feminine charm with their complicity in beastly abuse. The range of their military posts, from education officer to operation sergeant, testifies to the widespread military tactics that their individual shame wrestles with back in civilian life and away from the military camaraderie.

Meytal, with her shorn head and soft voice, leads this female chorus of lament. After joining the service to train as a medic, in a benevolent wish to help and to learn a useful profession, she “jumps for joy” when she finds herself stationed in Hebron, a political hot spot. Instead of playing Clara Barton to the troops, Meytal finds herself collecting and hosing down corpses before they are handed over to the Palestinian National Authority. Slowly, she reviews the chilling details: her first fatality, an infant girl, and the subsequent congratulations; the corpse whose eyes kept opening; the smell of a man who slowly bleeds to death and finally the corpse with an erection. These experiences transform her into an unrecognizable ogre. Rotem, a military observer with the code name “Snow White,” with her long straight hair and white teeth, looks like she wandered off the set of a 1960’s Flower Power commercial instead of the sinister surveyor of young Palestinian rock-throwers, oblivious to the technology stacked against them in her periscope. In an unsure giggle that betrays her self-estrangement, she remembers the “power” of her position and how her surveillance leads to the torture and death of a young boy. Like a contemporary Lady Macbeth, she can not wash the blood off her hands.

Inbar, an operations sergeant, Tal, a welfare officer who ends at the checkpoints, Dana, an education officer, and Libi, a combat soldier, all unflinchingly reflect on their service in a manner that triggers respect, empathy and repulsion in the viewer. Their visible deterioration and quietly expressed torment will set off a muffled emotional explosion for anyone concerned about the cost of Israeli occupation to Israel, or more generally the cost of occupation to our own soldiers.

In “My Home-Your War,” Australian filmmaker Kylie Grey effectively compiles e-mails, news clips and personal interviews to give an intimate look at the changes of one Iraqi women’s family over three years of war and occupation. Her protagonist, Layla, a woman of “many masks” (wife, mother, daughter and teacher) will appeal to most westerners, especially those wearing the same masks here. The documentary opens by introducing her middle class family including her 15 year old son, Amro, who approves of Britney Spears’ pretty face but disapproves of her body shots. Before the coalition attack on Baghdad, the family remembers the first Gulf War while fearfully waiting for the second to begin. At work, Layla translates for a “staged” peace conference hosted by Dr. Huda Amash, the infamous Queen of Hearts, and at home, Layla collects water bottles and dry food to prepare for the “Shock and Awe” campaign. This blatant display of 21st-century military might provides counterpoint to Layla’s mundane desires for her son’s future, her wish to travel and to live in peace.

With the arrival of American soldiers and the subsequent looting, Layla expresses disillusionment that the “government has disappeared” and worries that none of the Iraqis “know the meaning of democracy.” Amro innocently complains that he can no longer play soccer on the streets when the electricity goes out because of the American soldiers. Still, both Layla’s Sunni family and her best friend’s Shiite family relish the first taste of freedom of speech and Layla lovingly caresses the previously banned books in Iraq’s famous book market. With the capture and hanging of Saddam Hussein, his public humiliation spurs depression, anger and nostalgia. While Layla feels pain at seeing “everything has gone with him,” for her son and younger sister, Saddam becomes a symbol of Iraqi strength, a leader who made mistakes but kept the electricity on and the streets opened.

As the security vanishes and the car bombings, kidnappings and assassinations escalate, Layla and her sister think about romantic love. Layla dreams of exile to protect Amro “from his ideas.” Yet Amro also has plans for the future; “as soon as exams end,” he plans to start a movement with his friends and their hidden weapons. The film ends two years after the fall of Baghdad. Layla’s sister, a 24-year-old woman who talks like an intellectually challenged 13-year-old, adopts the “scarf” and Amro, who has joined the street militia, also seizes the freedom to talk back to his mother. In a disquieting domestic moment, Amro struts for his mother with his machine gun and the war-weary, peace-loving Layla flatters him with “it suits you.” Perhaps “My Home – Your War” moralizes about the Iraq War to now-deaf ears, yet the changes wrought in this educated, well-meaning, westernized middle class family do not bode well for the future.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)

Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid

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