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October 6, 2006 E-mail story   Print   Most E-Mailed


'Paper Dolls'

Living on Israel's margins.
'Paper Dolls'
(Tomer Heymann / Strand Releasing)

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By Kevin Thomas, Special to The Times

After closing its borders to Palestinian workers in 2001 in response to the intifada, Israel admitted more than 300,000 immigrants to fill the employment void. Among them were many Filipinos, including a group of pre-op transsexuals who found jobs as caregivers to elderly Jews. Several put together a drag show, performing for the Filipino community in Tel Aviv. They called their lip-synch act "Paper Dolls," which is the title of Tomer Heymann's captivating, consciousness-raising documentary, as affectionate toward the Dolls as it is critical of widespread Israeli antipathy toward the transgendered and suspicion of immigrants in general, especially amid escalating terrorist attacks.

Initially, however, the transsexuals enjoy a more liberal atmosphere in Israel in contrast with that of their native country. The film's central figure is Sally, who has found a father figure in Haim, an elderly man suffering from bronchial cancer that has robbed him of speech. Initially taken aback after realizing that Sally is male, Haim explains with a shrug and a scratch pad note to Heymann that "I got over it." Haim, in short, is a mensch, but should he die, Sally would not be allowed to find another employer and would have to return to the Philippines.

The transsexuals' situations vary: One, caring for an ultra-Orthodox Alzheimer's patient, must dress as a man at work; another dresses as a woman but is always referred to as a man by her employer, although he is unconcerned that she is a transsexual. One of the Dolls explains that they are such effective caregivers because Filipino culture teaches respect for the elderly. Heymann records little direct hostility toward the Paper Dolls, although a number of people express to him contempt and even hatred for transsexuals. Until terrorist acts escalate, igniting extreme xenophobia and paranoia, the Paper Dolls pretty much enjoy life, even at the margins of Israeli society.

Well meaning and charismatic, Heymann, who at one point gamely allows the Dolls to dress him up like a woman, tries to promote the Paper Dolls on TV and in disco engagements only to have them discover that on the whole they're not slick enough to make the grade and they return gratefully to their ethnic audiences. As bombings increase, the Dolls' situation gets shakier, creating a dramatic, revealing and highly emotional climax for the film, followed by a reassuring coda. A documentary about transsexuals from the Philippines working as caregivers in Israel sounds highly specialized in its appeal, but Heymann brings to "Paper Dolls" not only an engaging poignancy and depth but also a powerful universality.

'Paper Dolls'

MPAA rating: Unrated. Adult themes.

Distributed by Strand Releasing. Writer-director Tomer Heymann. Producers Claudia Levin, Stanley Buchthal, Heymann. Cinematographer Itai Raziel. Editor Lavi Ben Gal. In Hebrew, English and Tagalog, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; and the Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811.


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