Paper Dolls

2006, Movie, NR, 80 mins


There have been a number of worth documentaries about gender-benders who cross every conceivable line, but Tomer Heymann's film about a group of Filipino cross-dressers living in Israel is a drag doc with a difference: It not only explores what it means to be a transgendered individual in a largely conservative and deeply religious society, it also exposes the precarious situation facing immigrant workers in Israel since the closing of the Israel-Palestine border. To fill the void left by those Palestinian workers who, after the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2001, were no longer allowed to travel from their homes on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to their jobs in Israel, the Israeli government allowed some 300,000 foreign workers from around the world to enter the country. A group of these new arrivals came from the Philippines and settled in the run-down and largely immigrant neighborhood near the Tel Aviv train station. Chiqui, Cheksa, Sally, Jan and Giorgio — the central subjects of Heymann's film — eventually found work as caregivers for elderly Israelis, some of whom belonged to the Ultra-conservative Jewish community that dwells within the city's Bnei Brak district. But what makes this particular group of foreign workers so unusual is that they're all members of the Paper Dolls, a group of transvestite performers who perform in a lyp-synch revue at small, largely Filipino clubs. By day they appear as men (or as close to a man as one can get with plucked eyebrows, manicures and a hormonally enhanced bust line) and care for their infirm clients, bathing, feeding, dressing and taking them for walks. By night they don feathers, sequins and a lot of gaffing tape and transform themselves into the Paper Dolls. Not all of their employers know their "secret" — the family of Jan's charge, for instance, has no idea he thinks of himself as a she — but for those that do, like Sally's employer, Haim, a strong, almost familial bond can develop. And when it comes to remaining in Israel, this bond is all-important. The moment foreign workers in Israel lose their jobs they also lose their visas and can be immediately deported; thus their status as a "legal" versus an "illegal" immigrant depends entirely on the whims of their employers. Heymann follows these fascinating people as they go about their difficult day jobs and try to land a dream gig performing at Tel Aviv's biggest night club (luckily, Heymann knows the owner), all the while encountering prejudice from nearly every quarter, including Tel Aviv's own gay community. Heymann has a flair for drama and a way of making every scene he appears in all about him — do we really need to watch him overcome his own deep prejudices by undergoing a drag transformation? — but the Paper Dolls themselves are funny and touching and their plight is relevant to any discussion about foreign workers, regardless of the country. (In Hebrew, English and Tagalog with English subtitles.) leave a comment --Ken Fox

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