In Tomer Heymann’s new documentary, “Paper Dolls,” opening September 6 at New York’s Film Forum, viewers are introduced to a group of transvestite Filipino workers in Tel Aviv, who perform in a cross-dressing group called the Paper Dolls. But the real cross-dresser here may be Heymann, who garbs his film in one set of clothing, only to strip it off without warning and then reveal something far starker, and more affecting.
First, a bit of explanation. The film initially sets out as Heymann’s group portrait of the Paper Dolls. Its members have banded together to form an alternative family in the unforgiving climes of post-second intifada Israel, where they had been summoned to replace the Palestinian workers no longer welcome beyond the green line. Most of the group’s members spend their days as caretakers to the elderly, patiently cooking, cleaning and pampering the infirm. It is at night, though, that they come alive, outfitting themselves in outrageous garb and performing lip-synced versions of such gloriously cheesy songs as Bananarama’s “Venus.”
“Paper Dolls” is initially structured to resemble a standard-issue triumph-of-the-outsider tale, with the group auditioning for a performance slot at a legendary Tel Aviv nightclub — and succeeding. But dreams prove illusive; the group’s lone club performance is disastrous, and the performers are not invited back. Something in the film, and its subjects, snaps at this point, and a darker wave of dissatisfaction and dread washes over “Paper Dolls.” The subject of the film becomes not the camp or shock value of group’s sexual or sartorial preferences, but rather the guys’ tenuous lives as guest workers in Israel, and the widely differing relationships they have with their frail, elderly employers. For Sally, her 89-year-old patient, Chaim, is like a second father; for others, like Jan and Chiqui, who both work for Orthodox men in the religious Bnei Brak neighborhood, a rigid separation must be enforced between professional and personal life. We see Jan nervously scuttling into women’s garb in the hallway of her patient’s building after a workday dressed as a man, her face etched with shame at the guiltily double life she is forced to lead. The Paper Dolls and, by extension, all the guest workers who live in the transvestites’ neighborhood near Tel Aviv’s bus station, live in mortal fear of deportation, of losing their tenuous grasp over the lives they have established in Israel. News reports of police crackdowns on illegal workers send shivers of fear through the group, and Israel’s unnecessarily cruel policies — which dictate that the loss of a job translates into the loss of legal status — makes the subjects’ already transient lives even more fragile.
Sally is indisputably the center of the film, her assured demeanor and evident satisfaction in unselfishly caring for Chaim radiating off the screen. She treats him less as an employer than as a parent, joshing amicably and lovingly with him; about to head off on a trip back to the Philippines, she asks him what he would like as a gift: A shirt? A pair of pants? A girlfriend? And yet, his frail health is a challenge to her on numerous levels. Chaim is the closest thing she has to family in Israel, and his illness requires her to face the unimaginable; in addition, the possibility of his death raises worries about her cloudy future. Like her compatriots in the Paper Dolls, Sally is thankful for having the opportunity to express herself far from the conservative, repressive Philippines. At the same time, her twilight life leaves her less than fully at home in Tel Aviv. Indeed, by the end of the film many of the Paper Dolls have left Israel, seeking refuge in countries where immigrants have the potential to become full citizens.
In an interview early in the movie, a hairdresser named Giorgio describes the Paper Dolls’ name as referring to its members’ sexuality. Being neither men nor women, they are, in Giorgio’s estimation, the equivalent of paper dolls — only a rough estimation of the real thing. As the film progresses, though, it becomes clear that Giorgio’s explanation of the group’s name is incorrect, or at best incomplete. Sally, Jan and the rest are paper dolls because they are cardboard cutouts of real, flesh-and-blood Israelis. Their existence in Israel, where they are allowed to stay only as long as they are economically necessary — and under the arbitrary rules that deny them any legitimacy — dooms them, and all foreign workers, to a paper existence, lacking entirely in heft or permanency.