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Paper Dolls

Goy Toys They Aren't

Politics makes strange bedfellows, and causes strange side-effects. Because of the closed borders to Palestinian workers, Israel has tried to fill in the gaps in the job market in interesting ways. Tomer Heymann's Paper Dolls explores one odd byproduct of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict: transgender Filipino expatriates who care for elderly Orthodox Jews by day -- and perform in drag shows by night.

Chiqui Diokno leads a tight-knit group of Filipinos living in the religious town of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, far away from their disapproving, hostile homes in the Philippines. Their disposition and skills are perfectly suited for the sort of work (where have we heard this before?) that locals do not want to do. In this case, that means providing in-home care for elderly men who suffer from dementia or otherwise cannot fend for themselves -- feeding, bathing, changing bedpans, keeping them company.

Their situation is rife with irony. As individuals they are largely accepted by the vibrant gay community in Tel Aviv and yet, as a struggling performance group called the Paper Dolls, they are mostly dismissed as one-trick ponies with an exotic flair. Their important work is seemingly sanctioned by the government and yet they are arbitrarily hassled by the immigration police. These hardworking outcasts have only one another to confide in, relax with, and empower.

As with any good movie featuring drag queens, Paper Dolls shows these gender-transitioning individuals in all their entertaining dimensionality. On the job, gender roles are reversed -- and also reinforced -- by their positions as caretaker, wife, child, and best friend. Off the clock, they are a curious mix of insouciance, drama, camaraderie, and competitiveness.

Despite the cultural divide separating them from their charges, they learn the language enough to make connections. Their patter switches from English to Tagalog to Hebrew, making the situations they find themselves in sometimes even more surreal.

Chaim Amir, who is unable to talk (he writes down what he wants to say), is the most receptive to his transgender caretaker, Sally Comatoy. He good-naturedly corrects her Hebrew and engages her in conversation while she helps him get out and about.

However, not all people are as enlightened -- or feel as unthreatened -- as Chaim. One taxi driver who travels regularly to the Philippines to find cheap sex disdains the value of these Filipinos in his home city. His opinion of what he thinks is their "true jobs" (common whores) exposes not only his ignorance of their real situation but also his utter disdain for women. The next shot we see is of one of the caretakers lifting someone with dementia into bed. One wonders if this particular taxi driver has been roundly shamed by his neighbors by now. (Paper Dolls appeared originally as a six-part series on Israeli TV, so who knows?)

In another unexpected twist, a different taxi driver falls in love with Chiqui's little brother, Giorgio, who's also a paper doll. He doesn't realize that this cute young thing is a man until late into their relationship -- and he doesn't care.

Director Heymann spent a lot of time with his subjects, and it shows. He's not a dispassionate fly on the wall; the trust he's built frees them to share their feelings with the camera. In one lighthearted moment, he agrees to be done up in drag himself. When one of them gets picked up on a visa violation, he shows up to question the police about what's really going on.

The scenes he shoots in Tel Aviv's gay nightclubs and pride parades look deceptively ordinary -- as sexually liberating as any big western city -- until violent reality rears its ugly head. That's when you realize that all the people in this region live partly with their heads in the clouds and their feet in the trenches.

Stars: 3 out of 5 stars