Back again later the same evening to see To See If I'm Smiling
First things first: it was preceded by a short called Hamdi and Maria
about a Palestinian whose car was destroyed by one of two missiles aimed at the car of a Hamas member. Most of Hamdi's family were killed outright: his daughter Maria was paralysed from the neck down, but he himself was unharmed. To their credit the Israeli government admitted its mistake and gave Maria treatment in West Jerusalem's big paediatric hospital. The film is short but very moving, and despite everything, Hamdi doesn't come over as a bitter man.To See If I'm Smiling
is an absolutely extraordinary piece of cinema, comprising interviews (and some military footage) of six female conscripts into the Israeli army (women serve two years from age 18 to age 20). As fast as it confirms stereotypes, this film destroys them. Yes, we see a room full of (male) Israeli soldiers doing a kind of drunken victory dance reminiscent of football hooligans. Yes, one of the women interviewed admits that her troop stripped and beat a Palestinian who had simply made a rude gesture at her. Yes, the same woman made 80 people stand for no reason in scorching heat at a checkpoint because she was pissed off that a friend had been killed the previous day. Yes, a female education officer was ostracised by her entire platoon for whistle-blowing after they'd looted a mosque, after which she reckoned she'd only report really serious violations in future. And no, she didn't report it when they brought in some Palestinian corpses and posed with them, Abu-Ghraib-style. She did, however, say that she knew that wasn't normal behaviour: but as she also said, nothing about being in the Territories is "normal". And she does have a point.
Another woman described how her unit questioned a Palestinian teenager and released him, only to find him later being detained by another group of soldiers who when questioned said they'd been "having fun" with him. The boy was crying, bruised and with cigarette burns on his body. She reported it, and her commanding officer asked the other soldiers' commanding officer for a report. A very truthful account of the beating was duly supplied, whereupon her commander told her to take it back and ask for a report that wouldn't cause trouble. (So much for the IDF always investigating claims of torture!) She said she'd considered, just that once, taking the suppressed report and its sanitised replacement to a journalist. When asked why she hadn't, she became thoughtful and admitted she really didn't know.
The same woman described the sick sense of humour (her phrase) the IDF soldiers had, mentioning an occasion when they'd swapped cassette tapes in a mosque so that instead of the call to prayer the mosque's sound system belted out "I've Got The Power" by Snap. While admitting that it's disrespectful behaviour I have to say I can see the joke there (like the disgruntled organist in Henry Wood's memoirs who sabotaged the organ for his successor so the loud and soft drawbars were swapped round: a joke Wood totally failed to appreciate).
An observer described various operations using her CCTV cameras to guide troops onto stone-throwers, demonstrators, bombers and generally suspicious characters. She described how after guiding them onto a group of stone-throwers she heard on the radio that one of the boys had died, and after that she always thought "I killed a boy". She took it very personally and always felt really bad about it.
The film's title is supplied by the first woman we see interviewed. She was a medic in the IDF
and describes being congratulated by her colleagues on reaching such milestones as her first fatal casualty (as this was a baby girl she didn't feel congratulations were what she needed right then). On one shift she was assigned to wash the bodies of the dead: not a very pleasant task, as for example someone who had bled to death after a non-fatal head injury had lost control of all his sphincters. One corpse developed an erection, and for reasons she couldn't really explain she asked a (female) colleague to take a picture of her with this corpse. So far so good, but over time the existence of this picture, and what it said about her, really began to get to her, and she wanted to go to the friend and take a look at the picture to see what she looked like in it, "to see if I'm smiling", as the thought of the incident now really repelled her. At the very end of the film we accompany her to the friend's house, see her looking through her photo album, and then being given the relevant pictures in an envelope to look at later. We see her opening the envelope, looking at the pictures and starting to cry. "How could I ever have imagined I could just forget about that?" she sobs, and the film ends.
So we hear about IDF brutality and impunity, we discover (if we needed to) that it isn't confined to male soldiers, but we also hear and see the lasting effects of the experience of military occupation on young women, some (most, I would guess) of whom are no more brutal than I am. As I came out, the elderly man who had sat next to me said "That's a whole generation of Israeli women messed up for life", and I had to point out that as the occupation has been going on for forty years there are several resulting generations of screwed-up Israelis, of both sexes.
A genuinely thought-provoking and challenging film.