Press review for Paper Dolls
The New York Times

Paper Dolls In Search of a Better Life, and a Place to Be Accepted


Published: September 6, 2006

Many of the films from Israel that show up on American movie screens — and most of the documentaries — deal obliquely or directly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this context, “Paper Dolls,” which opens today at Film Forum, is both a surprise and something of a relief.

The film, directed by Tomer Heymann, is part diary and part human-interest story. It examines the lives of a group of transsexual Philippine immigrants who work as home attendants for elderly Israelis and also perform in Tel Aviv nightclubs. It also records the filmmaker’s friendship with them, including his efforts to bring them to the attention of an influential club promoter.

Shot on video and mingling interviews with observations of daily life, “Paper Dolls” is a modest film, less interested in advocacy or analysis than in sympathy. Not that politics is entirely absent from the story Mr. Heymann has to tell. Most of the men who appear in the movie, described as being in various stages of sex transition and known by the feminine names they have adopted, came to Israel in the wake of the second intifada to fill jobs traditionally done by Palestinians. Their status can be precarious, since they are ineligible for citizenship, and their visas can be revoked if they lose their jobs.

Still, they fit in as best they can, speaking pretty good Hebrew and ignoring the occasional stares that come their way, especially in the Orthodox neighborhoods where they work. Most have mixed feelings about their temporary home, which is a more open, less sexually repressive society than the one they left, but also one they find to be cold, materialistic and bureaucratic. Like nannies and nurses around the world, they are expected to provide boundless care — even love — for a modest wage.

The most moving and unusual episodes in “Paper Dolls” observe the relationship between Sally, one of the senior paper dolls and a person of striking poise and charisma, with her employer, Haim. Though throat cancer has left him unable to speak, Haim is nonetheless a dynamic presence in the film and in Sally’s life, urging her to read the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, correcting her Hebrew grammar and visibly basking in her warmth and wit. They have the easy, humorous tenderness of a long-married couple. The rest of “Paper Dolls” fits more conventionally into the mold of this kind of documentary, which seeks to illuminate a subculture without allowing its curiosity to become exploitative or prurient. It is a plea for — and an example of — tolerance and affection, and it succeeds in showing the individuality and dignity of Sally, Chiqui, Jan, Giorgio and their friends.

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