Movie Takes

Close to Home

Imagine if Maureen Dowd were a soldier in the Israeli army.

By 2.27.07

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Those who believe that the Israeli Defense Force offers us a model of how to deploy women in the armed services should take a look at Close to Home (Karov la bayit) by Dalia Hager and Vidi Bilu. Like everyone in Israel, male and female, the co-directors had to perform a period of military service at age 18. When the two women met some time later, they thought it odd that no one had ever made a movie about the lives of women in the army and decided to remedy the deficiency. Their story concerns two young draftees, Mirit (Naama Shendar) and Smadar (Smadar Sayar), who are teamed up together and sent out into the streets of Jerusalem to check the ID cards of Arabs and register them on official forms that are carried on their clipboards and that they will later submit to the security bureaucracy.

The task doesn't make sense to them -- as it probably doesn't either to the film-makers, since they are completely uninterested in the workings of the Israeli security apparatus except as they are a nuisance to a couple of teenagers looking for a good time -- and they perform it badly. There is a chuckle or two when Smadar brings back an empty form and refuses to speculate on the reasons for her failure to find any Arabs in Jerusalem. "Maybe I don't know what an Arab looks like," she says finally, with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. The two girls are opposite types: Mirit is pretty but timid and with a natural deference to authority; Smadar is striking-looking and sexy, though not conventionally pretty. She is a rebel and a slacker who at first despises her comparatively spiritless partner, especially when she does things like apologizing to an Arab whom she has caused to miss his bus.

"Why say sorry?" says Smadar. "You're such a moron!"

Mirit lives at home with her parents (Ami Weinberg and Katia Zinbris) while Smadar, whose parents live abroad, has her own apartment in Jerusalem. Mirit is deeply unhappy with her army life and doesn't fit in well. She wants to transfer to another unit far from home. Smadar, though more independent, is also lonely. When a terrorist bomb goes off nearby and Mirit faints, the experience brings the two girls together and they develop a tentative friendship. Mirit introduces Smadar to her parents, and the warmth of their welcome to their daughter's "friend" actually helps bring the friendship into existence.

As it develops, Smadar leads Mirit into uncharacteristically rebellious behavior. One day, as the two are doing security bag searches at an international hotel, one of the male guests takes a shine to Mirit, and Smadar urges her to take up his invitation to follow him to the bar for a few minutes. When their superior officer (Sharon Reginiano) shows up unexpectedly, Smadar tries to cover for her friend by telling her that Mirit has gone to the ladies' room, but the officer finds her dancing in the bar and poor Mirit is sentenced to do time in a military stockade for leaving her post.

Mirit assumes that Smadar has betrayed her and asks to be reassigned to another partner when she comes out. Smadar, still assuming that they are best friends, goes with her parents to visit Mirit in jail and is shocked at being snubbed. Will they become permanently estranged, or will the two friends manage to patch it up again? The striking thing about the movie to me was that the film-makers appeared to take all this stuff as seriously as the two young women themselves do. Their girlish affections and misunderstandings, "mean" behavior and pouting at each other's insensitivity ought to make a strong contrast with the presumably life-and-death matters on which they are employed but do not. Apart from the one bomb blast -- whose only on-screen consequence is some drifting smoke, some emergency crews loading people onto stretchers and Mirit's fainting -- the terrorist threat is allowed to seem as remote to us as it obviously does to the two soldiers as they duck into clothes or hairdressing shops when they are not being checked up on, or register few Arabs, or none, when they are.

The directors are, I take it, feminists of the Maureen Dowd school, who don't like the unisex assumptions on which their military obligations are founded and who are inclined to believe that all the military rigmarole these young girls are subjected to is really just a lot of masculine silliness getting in the way of their growing up and living independent lives. If you don't share this belief you may find, as I did, that the movie is difficult to like. But if the IDF is really anything like this, at least you will have learned something that is likely to have momentous consequences for the future of Israel.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.