To See if I'm Smiling (Lirot Im Ani Mehayechet)
I'd heard about To See if I'm Smiling, or Lirot Im Ani Mehayechet, some time ago as it gathered both positive and negative comments, and not too surprisingly either. The film focuses on female soldiers who have served in the Israeli Defense Force within the occupied territories.
The women who are interviewed have all been affected by the events of their time in the army in some way, and through the film we discover how each has dealt with their time and what they've had to deal with.
This isn't a film that defends the Israeli forces by no means, in fact it takes no sides other than the sides of the people, those affected by combat, those that are often forgotten and assumed to be the least affected.
The documentary is very powerful, and what I found the most interesting is that these women have all been affected in different ways and they have also dealt with it in different ways too. One woman turned to drink and now struggles emotionally to deal with what she did and how she was involved, another was hit so hard by the reality of her involvement that she still struggles to come to terms with it and the one event has affected her entire life, while another carries a rage inside her that sometimes boils to the surface.
The women all tell their stories, usually starting innocuously enough and slowly building to the moment that defines what hit them the hardest from the time they served and why it affected them so deeply.
The narrative of each of the ladies is very engaging, there's something about watching them tell their stories through their pain and inner turmoil that demands your attention. I'm not sure whether some of this was a morbid curiosity to watch others suffering, or whether it was being totally drawn into their words. Whatever the reason the effect is the most important part, I was totally enthralled and followed each of their stories intently.
I was surprised how partisan it felt. Of course these stories are told from the Israeli point of view as these soldiers are all in the Israeli army, but I never felt they were preaching about any position on the fighting other than war takes a huge emotional toll on those that survive it, and that was obvious from the women and their stories.
Neither should you concern yourself that this is a film about women in the military, listening to these women and watching them you soon forget that distinction. Again, you soon realise that this is about how combat has affected people, and these could well be the stories of veterans of any campaign, of any sex, and indeed we have heard similar stories from all wars and all sexes.
The main interviewee is the woman who wants to “see if she is still smiling” in a photograph that was taken during her service in the army. She was a medic and at one point had her photo taken next to a corpse.
Now this story suddenly rings a strong connection with a film I just saw the other night, Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedures. During that film I really struggled with reconciling the words of a soldier who had been photographed doing this very thing, and her explanation for why she took the pictures. I couldn't really accept it, and yet here I was totally accepting and understanding – was this because the Israeli soldier showed her emotions more, or was it the fact that the weight of the media had not influenced my beliefs? I'm not sure, but the comparison is a very interesting one and I wish I had made it during the Errol Morris Q&A.
Anyway, back to this film. The Israeli medic's story is the main thread running through the documentary, and after she has taken time to tell her story we follow her to her ex-army friend's house to look back on the photographs that she has from their days together, one of these photographs being the one she posed by the dead body, smiling.
Her story, like the others, is a hugely emotional one but when she actually looks at the photo I was amazed how little sadness I felt and how much sympathy I had for her. I had really been taken in by her story and totally connected with her on a personal level.
This is something I think that most documentaries that feature people and straight one to ones strive for, making that personal connection and getting the audience to feel something for them.
The other women have similarly harrowing and heart rendering stories. One gives another insightful look into the human condition as it shows how someone far removed from the battlefield can be affected. She was an observer, her job would be to watch monitors and call in and direct troops to trouble areas, she would point out targets and the troops would take care of it. She was far removed from the front line, but she was still hugely affected when a boy was shot as a result of her calling in an incident and directing the troops to the troublemakers.
It was shocking to see how affected she was by the incident, and even more shocking to hear her words of what she felt. I shan't recount them here as it is far better to see her and hear her for yourself.
One thing that does harm the film is the footage they use to show while some of the women are talking. This seems stock or filmed especially, and apart from the odd photograph or couple of short video clips of the women off the front line, we don't have much visual reference for their stories. Sometimes the visual side seems forced to match the words we're being told, and that doesn't feel right all the time.
Every time we hear from the observer and leap to one of these outside shots we see a superimposed grid target on the camera. It's a good indication of who we are hearing from again, but at this stage in the film you recognise their voice and their story. This visual addition seems forced and a little distracting.
However these negatives are few and far between and the stories of these women really struck a chord and managed to get right into me. I was feeling rather emotional at the end of the film, and not just teary either, it is a tough film to watch, but one that does give you a different insight into serving in combat, whatever your position.
This is a must see documentary without a doubt. Forget the fact that this focuses on women in the Israeli Defense Forces, that is far from the point. This film shows the harsh realities of what a few women were asked to do during their madatory time serving in the army, and reveals a few truths about the horrors of war and the terrible realities of what conflict can make people do, whatever belief, country or sex.
More than that it highlights what these people have to deal with once they leave the army and return to a relatively normal civilian life, the burden they continue to carry, and how for many of them there is no return to a normal civilian life. Perhaps we should watch this and thinik of our own troops returning from our own front lines, whatever the right and wrongs and the politics involved.
Release Dates: Right now there's nothing listed past the Edinburgh Film Festival showing in June 2008.
Search for To See if I'm Smiling (Lirot Im Ani Mehayechet) on Filmstalker stores
UK IMDB Film Details
Filmstalker's Edinburgh International Film Festival 2008 page