"Close To Home" Honest Depiction of Young People By John Anderson

in 23rd Miami International Film Festival

by John Anderson

Yes, the sun was strong, the sea was blue and an esprit Cubano was in the tropical air, but the clichés stopped at the theater doors of the 2006 Miami International Film Festival. This year, participants followed the old Ezra Pound edict — “make it new.” And even when the movies didn’t entirely hang together — and there were more than a few that didn’t — the films offered perspectives fresh enough to make one glad to have been there. A modernized griot tale from Burkina Faso (Ouaga Saga), an allegorical lament from war-torn Sri Lanka (The Forsaken Land) and the story of the meltdown of a company man in France (Burnt Out) all provided something we hadn’t seen, in a way we hadn’t seen it.

Exhibit A: Close to Home (Karov la bayit), an Israeli drama directed by Dalia Hager and Vidi Bilu about members of the border patrol that defied all the clichés about army movies, Israeli movies or — despite the fact that the principals are women — buddy movies. No nationalistic posturing or puerile patriotism. Plenty of selfishness and bad attitude. Good-looking women in khaki fatigues. What more could one want?

What Mirit and Smadar want is a way out of the army, although that, as they well know, is impossible. Their compulsory service under way (Israeli males spend three years in the army, females a little less than two), Smadar (Smadar Sayar) and Mirit (Naama Schendar) are considerably less than enthusiastic about doing their duty, although for their own specific reasons.

Directors Hager and Bilu have decided to be cagey about the backgrounds of their characters, and in the case of Smadar it leaves something of a cavity at the middle of the movie (as does the directors’ less than precise communication of time and place). A young woman of unusual goods looks and a decided allure, Smadar seems to have no family life outside the army (soldiers live at home when off duty, at least within this group), yet her social life and extracurriculars seem like textbook cases of adolescent, anti-parental rebellion. A recreational shoplifter, she picks up one young man while on duty, takes him home, has sex, pursues the relationship for a while but then eventually drives him off through sheer petulance. At the same time, this seemingly nihilistic punker resents having to perform the humiliating inspections of Palestinian women at the border crossing, enough so that when another soldier finally cracks, Smadar and the rest of the group are with her — that is, until their superior, Dubek (a very good Irit Suki) puts her foot down, and the soldiers put their tails between their legs.

More than acquiescent is Mirit, who is quick to say she hadn’t nothing to do with the mutiny, thus making her suspicious to the officers and hateful to her peers. That Mirit and Smadar will be paired up as seekers of suicide bombers seems calculated to drive them both crazy, but they manage to eke out a friendship that will suffer the vagaries of its own type of martial law.

Far more interesting than the more soap-opera-ish aspects of the Hager-Bilu script — Mirit’s vague pursuit of a good-looking resident of their patrol area creates plot problems, and ultimately goes nowhere — is the film’s point of view. There have been (although I haven’t personally seen them) films about Israeli army women, but none, it seems, featuring characters who display such blatant hostility to their circumstances as in Close to Home. One might fault the film for not showing the proper fealty to a system that protects a nation surrounded by enemies, but the story is honest in its depiction of young people who are frustrated at having their freedom limited, and their actions dictated, and their sense of social justice all but dismissed.

The title? It means many things, obviously, but in the case of Mirit, it reflects the malleable young woman’s essential problem with her military duty: Despite her seemingly quiescent personality and suffocating family, she wanted to be stationed somewhere else, not commuting distance to her parents’ house. Smadar, on the other hand, has nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. Close to Home concludes with a bewildering bit of business that seems more of an improvised exit than an ending, but along the way to its unsatisfactory finish it provides a window into a world unfamiliar to many. It certainly doesn’t represent the Israel of the travel posters or PR spin. But it does seem, in its sporadic way, very real indeed.