The Tragedy of the Smile

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October 17, 2009

Tamar Yarom’s 2007 documentary To See If I’m Smiling is a fascinating, yet disturbing study of the effect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Israeli psyche. The film is comprised of interviews with six female military veterans, who did much of their active duty in the Occupied Territories, in Judea and Samaria and in the Gaza Strip prior to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the territory.

Ever since Israel’s became independent, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) have been celebrated for implementing mandatory military service for women. Universal military service was deemed a sign of the inherent equality that characterizes Israeli society and the progressive character of both the state and Israeli women. Still, for decades, military service for women was limited to auxiliary, mainly clerical positions. In the 1980s, the IDF began assigning female recruits to technical and instructional roles, but only in the past ten years or so, after a lengthy campaign that ended in an appeal to Israel’s supreme court, has the army revised its policy in regards to women and started assigning them to combat duties.

Notwithstanding the unequal position of women within the IDF, filmmakers generally depicted military service in Israel as empowering women, and the changing attitude of the army towards women as a mark of a growing equality in Israeli society. Few ventured to show the travails of women within an [Tamar Yarom] environment that is still very much dominated by men and by male-chauvinist values. Fewer still, if any, have explored the effect of the violence experienced during military service on women, in particular the violence linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These two issues became obvious once women were allowed to serve in combat roles from which they were previously excluded.

Yarom’s To See If I’m Smiling examines the experience of women in an army at a time of conflict. But it should also be viewed in the context of what is by now a well-established tradition of portraying the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Since the outbreak of the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987, left-wing intellectuals have turned to the testimonies of soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories, soldiers who were willing to expose both the atrocities committed in the attempt to squelch Palestinian resistance and the traumas they themselves have experienced during their service, to critique the effect of the occupation on Israeli society.

Yet, the soldiers who were questioned and provided the ground for such critique were all men, and so the violence and atrocities committed were inherently gendered and perceived as effecting, first and foremost, Israeli men and Israeli masculinity and only secondarily and indirectly, Israeli women. By focusing exclusively on female recruits, Yarom’s film raises the question whether one can hold to such a clearly gendered division of trauma. What are we to learn when the soldiers in question are not men, Yarom seems to ask, but women? What does a gendered perspective add to our understanding of what is taking place in the Occupied Territories?

Yarom approaches these questions not from “above,” from the level of general political and sociological observation of the circumstances in which women find themselves, both in the context of military service and of the Israeli occupation. Rather, she approaches it from “below”: from narratives of the actual experience of individual women who found themselves—in fact, some willingly placed themselves—in these circumstances. To See if I’m Smiling’s impact lies in the accumulated effect of the particular incidents her six subjects recount for the director, and from their manifest struggle to come to terms with the role they themselves played in these incidents. The outcome is a nuanced and unsettling statement about what happens to human beings (in general, not just women) under these circumstances.

From these six interviews emerges a portrait of a conflicted and contradictory experience. They reveal the difficulty of maintaining one’s image as a woman in a military environment that is still a predominantly male environment. On the one hand, women soldiers are urged to conceal their femininity. As one interviewee notes, women would adopt the speech mode, the high volume and [I warn you, madam - I know the entire Geneva Convention by heart! Grand Duchess Gloriana: Oh, how nice! You must recite it for me some evening; I play the harpsichord.] coarse military language, of the male recruits; moreover, they would conceal their body within big clothes. At the same time, she remarks, all a woman has to do to gain favor with the male soldiers is to display her feminine side: the smell of her shampooed hair, her affection and care for male soldiers, etc. Their military service creates a continuous conflict between the need to repress and to display their femininity.

But more than that, Yarom’s film is about the struggle of her six subjects to relate their self-image as moral human beings with their evaluation of themselves and their actions during their military service. As the six recount, initially they were taken by what is commonly associated with the romanticized masculine perception of military service and combat: with the rush of adrenalin that are part and parcel of military action. More than that, they found service in the Occupied Territories to provide them with an exhilarating sense of power and control over the local population. It was like the Wild West, comments one woman.

Yet, as they are co-opted by their environment, the film’s subjects find themselves taking part, or even initiating, actions that they deem to be utterly immoral and in contradiction with everything in which they believe. Indeed, all tell of atrocities of which they were part: about abusing Palestinians civilians, concealing the brutality of Israeli soldiers in handling the Palestinian population, and even taking part in a pursuit that results in the death of a Palestinian boy. All six women thus struggle with questions about why they condoned what, in retrospect, they deem immoral; not only why they failed to protest and to report to the IDF’s Military Investigation Unit or the press when crimes and atrocities were committed but, much more disturbingly, why they themselves were willing to take part in such actions in the first place.

Increasingly, the six women relate, they found it impossible to find a bridge between their experiences in the Occupied Territories and at home. These seemed to be two wholly distinct worlds governed by different rules. Indeed, each world seemed to demand of them a different identity: one, the moral self of a presumably civil and free society, the other, an individual that willingly participate in oppression and cruelty. They don’t know who they are anymore.

Yarom’s film reflects this contradictory, conflicted narrative formally. To See if I’m Smiling is subsequently divided into two clear layers: a layer of interviews, in which the women, now discharged from the military, reflect in the comfort of their home upon their military service,interspersed with a second layer of footage from the Occupied Territories of encounters between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. Some of the footage is of the women during their military service. The viewer is thus presented with the demand to relate the apparent anguish of the six interviewees to the images of military action and, in particular, to the footage of the women during their military service, footage that shows them content, smiling and even laughing.

The title of the film, To See If I’m Smiling, is taken from the words of Meytal, who served as a Medic and Medical Officer in Hebron. Shaken up, Meytal relates that one of her duties was to wash the bodies of dead Palestinians, to conceal signs of what was done to them by the Israeli security forces before the bodies are handed back to the Palestinians. One time, she recalls, one of the corpses had an erection, a fact that brought about embarrassed laughter from the soldiers who were washing it. A group of soldiers was passing by, and one had a camera. Meytal then asks a woman to take her photo with the body. The photo is no longer in her possession, but she is now eager to find out whether her face betrays dismay of the situation in which she found herself or whether she is smiling.

The power of Yarom’s film inheres in the willingness of her interviewees to expose themselves so and to examine their experience in front of the camera. At the same time, however, the very fact that the film absorbs the viewer raises another extremely disturbing question. For what is held back, even forgotten by the progression of the interviews is how one is led to identify with the traumas of perpetrators of war atrocities. Indeed, such identification is possible only inasmuch as the misery of the Palestinians remains concealed. To show abused and tormented Palestinians would have made identification with the anguish of the perpetrators impossible. From this perspective, Yarom’s film reenacts the elision of Palestinians as human beings, an elision that is the basis of Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories. The question whether such an elision can be avoided remains open.

For more information on To See If I’m Smiling, check out the CBC News Sunday profile of the film.

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