Press review for Paper Dolls
Stylus Magazine

Movie Review - Paper Dolls


Unlikelihood is a central peg in selecting documentary subjects. This is not a cynical observation: Just because Paper Dolls’ topic—the lives of several Filipino transsexuals who work as nurses for Tel Aviv’s elderly Orthodox and moonlight as the eponymous drag queens—is a laugh-riot of peculiarity doesn’t mean that the movie chose undeserving principals or that it goes overboard with any of its decisions.

Ideally, a film grounded in such unlikelihood provokes an audience to marvel at a world fairly alien to their own. Indeed, leader of the pack Chiqui, an androgynous pacific islander humming along a little too loudly to music on his headphones during a perfectly archetypal shul (picture a dozen black-hatted eighty-somethings deep in prayer) is in itself enough to justify the project. The grandeur of unexpectedness is not just a product of Israel’s insular culture, but is reflected by our sense of the positive correlation between religious fundamentalism and failure of tolerance.

The basic error of this type of hyperbolic human-interest film is that it revels in its subject’s extremity; breach of neutrality in politicized documentary is often less alarming than the brand of excited filmmaking fatally proud of its own daring. But Paper Dolls passes this test: The performances are onstage only briefly, presented merely as fact—and neither as ecstatic exclamation nor as a lark. It is that something gentle which usually impresses us, as it does in this movie: Despite the often harsh Israeli culture, exemplified by two Dolls’ poor treatment by once-beloved employers, these characters have moving relationships with their patients. The set of circumstances is, of course, far less unlikely for filmmaker Tomer Heymann, a gay Israeli certainly accustomed to drag shows staged by foreigners, and his touch is, for the most part, quite level. Isn’t it curious, though, that the nonfiction motive is, almost invariably, to uncover the human nugget from the dire and extreme?

Again, this is not a cynical observation or a recognition of something cheesy. Though the Paper Dolls are the consummate outsiders, their Philippine nationality is actually represented in their work. Nursing is so prevalent a profession in the Philippines that as many as ten percent of ethnic Filipinos work as expatriate nurses; it’s noteworthy that these characters are relatively near their national mainstream—and are clearly proud of their birthright as sensitive caretakers. Though portraits often lead to the most natural access—the subject is effectively a collaborator—Heymann’s intrusions in his own movie are strange. He is onscreen as a friend and plaything of the Dolls; he also arranges their big break, hooking them up with a bigshot party promoter. Heymann is even more intrusive when he tells the Paper Dolls that they are “half women,” and that he would be “embarrassed” to dress in drag. Insofar as hecklers can be helpful catalysts for a reaction, you don’t usually see good journalists provoking their own subjects. The drag outfit subsequently prepared for Heymann does little to modify his unwelcome comments. If he thinks playing middleman will bring the subjects closer to the experience of an audience, he makes an odd concession to the uncomfortable uninitiated while underestimating the Dolls’ innate charisma. Paper Dolls was originally a miniseries on Israeli television, and it seems unfair to judge the depth of Heymann’s study in this abbreviated presentation. But while execution is somewhat hard to gauge, the natural style enables us to feel the fraught politics. We see the extraordinary backhandedness of the state: encouraging foreign workers to immigrate in lieu of barred Palestinian workers, and then not aiding them in job placement; telling foreign worker victims of suicide bombs not to worry about deportation in availing themselves of medical help, and then proceeding to deport them. But the more important feeling that arises is that of being trapped between uncertainties, hiding behind a locked door without context for sense-making. The human element, present and very touching against odds, is not a match for surrounding chaos. As the Paper Dolls each cope with deciding whether to leave Israel, the import of their presence—are they welcome? despised? appreciated?—isn’t available to them.

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