For some young Israelis, the idea of army service still holds romantic possibility: serving one’s country with the promise of adventure, and the opportunity to discover one’s self far from home. The reality is often quite different, with drudgery and endless repetition of dull tasks the markers of another day in the Israel Defense Forces. Vidi Bilu and Dalia Hager’s quietly forceful film, “Close to Home,” offers a look at a rarely seen side of the IDF, replacing the often overblown masculine warrior-worship of other military films with a distinctly subtler, more patient feminine gaze.
“Close to Home” ushers us into this world, showing it to us through the eyes of two representative young women: Mirit and Smadar. Mirit (played by the luminous Naama Schendar) is sure of what she wants but incapable of ever pulling the trigger. She wants to be stationed far from home, engaged in a more glamorous military task like being a tank instructor. Instead, she finds herself home for dinner with her parents every evening. She is quietly, but forcefully, attracted to a man she meets in the aftermath of a suicide bombing, but unable to work up the nerve to approach him. She is the kind of young woman who sees a hat she loves in a store window but finds herself incapable of purchasing it — scared of whom she might become if she were one of those people who did just what they wanted, every time.
Smadar (played by Smadar Sayar), by contrast, is all alone in Israel, her parents working overseas — a “lone soldier,” by the IDF’s designation. Far from home even as she paces restlessly around her family’s comfortable apartment, she is desperate for connection. At the same time, she is too acid tongued to allow any infractions of her ever-unstated rules to pass unmentioned.
This odd couple find themselves thrust together for their military duty, which consists of patrolling the streets of Jerusalem, stopping Palestinians, and noting down their names and identification numbers. The numbing sameness of the work takes its toll on the women, who lash out passively by committing small infractions of the rules — like eating on the job, or taking calls on their cell phones. Smadar and Mirit approach the task from opposing ends: Mirit diligent and cautious, afraid of raising the ire of her superiors, and Smadar irritable and supercilious, happy to leave the work to Mirit while she struggles to keep herself distracted. Both are starved for companionship, but they feed the hunger in opposing ways: Mirit by imagining herself far from the safety and familiarity of home, engaged in a passionate, nonexistent romance with a handsome stranger, and Smadar by wishing herself closer to home, embracing Mirit’s family as her own.
Smadar and Mirit are partners on a job and also a couple of sorts, and “Close to Home” documents the tiny shifts in their ways of relating to each other. Mirit sees the other women in their unit bonding, and is frustrated by her lack of connection with Smadar. Meanwhile, Smadar is frustrated by Mirit’s refusal to lighten up, to stop treating their Sisyphean task as if it were the most important duty imaginable. It takes that most hideous of Israeli tragedies — a suicide bombing — to clear away the miasma of tension that has built up around them. The suicide bombing is also a potent reminder of just what is at stake in their seemingly pointless work.
Bilu and Hager are patient filmmakers who never underline their points or their political stances, choosing instead to let any meanings the film proffers unfold from the natural rhythms of the story. By emphasizing repetition, “Close to Home” puts us in the shoes of its protagonists, enduring the same tired routine without hope of respite. Standing as they do on the front lines of the daily war of endurance and humiliation between Israelis and Palestinians, these young women embody the reality (as opposed to the rhetoric) of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At one and the same time, they are confused, frustrated, lonely, angry individuals, less interested in the niceties of political or military conflict than in finding someone — anyone — who will care for them.
Both Smadar and Mirit struggle with the demands of the state for unwavering obedience, knowing full well that what they do demeans not only the Palestinians they must detain, but those who do the detaining, as well. They also see the results of opting out: The film is bookended by individuals refusing to cooperate, with brutal, damning results for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Differences remain, though; as citizens of a vibrant democracy, Israelis demand the right to speak their minds — a freedom often denied to those under their control.
Saul Austerlitz is a frequent contributor to the Forward.