Press review for Paper Dolls
The Boston Globe

'Paper Dolls' cuts below the surface


By Wesley Morris 

Like a lot of drag queens, the ones in Tomer Heymann's highly affecting documentary, ``Paper Dolls," don't lead a glamorous life. They've come to a suburb of Tel Aviv from the Philippines and work, mostly, as caregivers to the elderly, some of whom are Orthodox Jews. They do so in their street clothes, as men, and when their weekend shifts end, they change into their costumes (tubby Jan Jan slips into his evening gown in the stairwell of his client's building) and head to a drag show where they perform as an entertainment collective called the Paper Dolls.

Heymann's approach to the Dolls -- who, unfortunately, are referred to only by their drag names -- is curious and friendly. He appears in the film, following them to work (the day jobs and the shows) and to a gay pride parade. He's affectionate with his subjects and also inquisitive. In macho Israel, drag culture almost has to exist underground, so Heymann's interest in the nitty-gritty of performing as a woman and his astonishment about gender fluidity seems personal and sincere. At some point Heymann, who is gay, allows himself to be made over and has a hard time wrapping his mind around the transformation. In makeup, he says he's embarrassed. Drag is foreign to him in the same way that the Filipinos are foreign to their Israeli neighbors. What the Paper Dolls really want is a gig at a real nightclub. In his mother's home, Heymann sets up an audition for a manager. To be honest, their act isn't very exciting -- in a hot basement or a suburban living room. The choreography, costumes, and lip-synching are off. But the manager sees potential. Some professionalism is needed, he says, that's all. By ``professionalism" he means an entirely different approach. The manager wants only a couple of Dolls as opposed to the five or six he saw. As if that weren't dispiriting enough, they're forced to take the stage as geishas (Bananarama's ``Venus" is their song) and are later required to bow in costume at the club entrance, while shirtless muscle boys dance on stage behind them. It's an amazing and depressing turn of events. The sequence gets at the exploitative indignities of performance: how your art sometimes never truly belongs to you. It also reinforces the cultural otherness the Dolls feel every day -- they're turned from human beings to live exotic flavoring. That discrepancy between the men's self-image and their neighbors' failure to see them as more than freaks and foreigners is the soul of the film -- not drag culture. Israel becomes inhospitable, at least in the Dolls' perception. And after bombings in their neighborhood and crackdowns from immigration, the Paper Dolls consider leaving their suburb and the country altogether. This means saying goodbye to their charges, although one of Sally's clients beats him to the punch, a surprise that's quite moving. Heymann's film was originally a six-part series for Israeli TV. The feature he and his crew have made smoothly truncates those three hours into a rich, discreetly damning 85-minute portrait of intolerance.

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