In Close to Home individual ego collides with the collective institutional ethos of doing Military Service in Israel. The film begins and ends with two particularly strong scenes which are the index of the whole work; both scenes disrupt into chaos or violence. At the beginning a teenage female soldier refuses to undress an Arab woman at an army checkpoint; she claims mental illness before her unit leader sends her to jail for her disobedience. At the end an Arab man refuses to show his identity card to a teenage female soldier and the scene erupts into a clash of hierarchies and egos.
On the whole, however, Close to Home is at risk of becoming slave to its message and motive, which is to represent for the first time the female perspective of Military Service in Israel through the fractured relationship of teenage girls Smadar and Mirit. They are assigned to patrol the streets of Jerusalem amongst a unit of teenage girls. On a daily basis, under the close inspection of their unit leader, they reluctantly patrol the streets and check the buses of Jerusalem. Their task is to record identity cards in order to keep up the controlled safety and security of the city. The film charts the boredom, interrelationships, danger, and dissent amongst the group of girls whilst focussing on the particular relationship between two very different teens.
Based on their own personal experiences, co writer and directors Dalia Hager and Vardit Bilu strive to create a film which gives the female perspective political pertinence. Close to Home aims to give the Israel/Palestine conflict a ‘fresh perspective’ by consistently engaging with the juxtaposition of individual emotional struggle and desire within a greater collective institutional and political context.
Before developing and financing Close to Home, Dalia Hager worked as a news editor for a daily newspaper, was editor of the Cinameteque magazine, and taught screenwriting.
Vardit Bilu studied photography before majoring in Directing at university. Since then she has directed, edited and produced shorts, documentaries and commercials.
INTERVIEW WITH DALIA HAGER AND VARDIT BILU
What inspired you to tell this story now? How did you team up?
Before we started working on this film, we wrote a TV series together. We had to decide where the characters of that TV series got to know each other. We were amused by the fact that in Israeli television men always get to know each other from the army service, but when you think about female characters you don’t think about the army although women serve in the army as well. This led us to talk about our army service and we both noticed that we had never talked about it before. Vardit served as a patroller in Jerusalem, and the film Close To Home grew from that talk. The TV series, by the way, was never made.
Are people aware of what goes on in the army?
Not really. People know what they did in the army, but they are not familiar with other jobs apart from their own. For example, when we held the auditions we met around 200 actresses and told them what’s the film is about. Only the ones who lived in Jerusalem knew that women soldiers did such a job.
Is it just a coming-of-age story or are you making a political statement? Do you have a political intent and if so, what is it?
If it were just a coming-of-age story, we wouldn’t set it in the army. Of course we are against the Israeli occupation, but it’s a film, not a political pamphlet. We wanted to make people think but not tell them what to think.
How does the fact that young people are used in the army for checking and searching Palestinians affect Israeli society?
For these young people the Palestinians become the ones they are checking, searching and registering, and without noticing they stop being real human beings for them. The Palestinians of course feel humiliated and disturbed by the checking and the whole situation just increases the mistrust and hatred between the two people.
Do women in Israel have a strong place in the army? Are there any social effects?
We both think that, since the army is a masculine paradigm, there is no reason that women will find their way in it. We don’t share the excitement that you can always find in the Israeli media when, for example, one woman succeeds in finishing a combat pilot course. We can’t see any feminist values in that military world. We don’t think that the women’s role is to fight for equality in the army, but to struggle against those values which turn Israel into a military society.
The big problem in Israel is that the army service is a springboard to major jobs in civilian life. The generals are becoming prime ministers – Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, etc – and head managers of big companies. Since most of the women are doing inferior jobs in the army, they will get inferior jobs afterwards.
The Israeli-Palestinians, who are not serving in the army, have the same problem (and other ones, of course).
Do people talk about this role of women in society – their army service?
No, women tend not to talk about that chapter in their lives once it’s over. They don’t feel it has any connection to their own lives. They don’t feel they belong to that military system, and they just want to forget about it and move on. And if women don’t talk about it, why would men?
More and more people are finding their ‘excuses’ to get out of the army – both men and women – why is that?
When we both served in the army (around 20 years ago) it was not a question for us if we wanted to do it or not; it was an obligation and we did our duty. Now it’s different – young people ask themselves if they want to do it or not, and many of them skip it by pretending they have a mental disorder. It’s not a political movement, everyone take care of themselves. Most of these young people are indifferent to the political situation, which has been going on for so long. They don’t see any point in getting killed for their country, and they just see the army service as a waste of time. Probably, unlike previous generations, the existence of the State of Israel is obvious for them and they don’t feel it is in any real danger.
The ones who declare they don’t want to serve in the army for reasons of conscience (the occupation) are still very few, and they are put in jail.
Tell me about the two main characters – what are the major concerns in their lives.
Mirit wanted to serve in an army base far from her parents’ house, but found herself stuck with her suffocating parents. She is very afraid of authorities and that’s why she always prefers to obey the rules. She wants to be loved and tries to please anyone (her commander, Smadar etc).
Smadar is completely the opposite: She doesn’t really care in what place she is serving in the army. Everything concerned with the army service looks the same for her – an unpleasant way to spend two years of her life – and she just want to get it over. For her, rules are invented in order to break them. She always revolts and looks for action. She can’t stand people who don’t agree with her.
How did you select the lead actresses?
We went to all the actors agencies and met around 200 actresses aged 20-25. In those meetings we asked them if they served in the army and what kind of role they had. But the army service was not our criteria to choose the cast, it was just a subject to talk about in order to get to know them a little bit. From these 200 actresses we choose 30 for the audition. We looked for actresses who still looked like girls.
They auditioned in pairs. Smadar and Naama are from the same agency, so it was quite a coincidence that they came together, and we both liked them very much. Neither of them had much professional experience and It fitted our concept of finding unknown faces (to the Israeli audience) in order to keep a sort of authenticity.
Naama served in the army in the same place where we shot the army base in the film. She was very happy to go back to that place as a free citizen, because she suffered very much when she served in the army.
Smadar skipped the army service. When asked how did she managed to play a soldier, she answered that she talked with friends who served in the army and that in Israel everybody know what is like to serve in the army, so it was not such a big deal for her.
How long did the shoot take?
The shoot lasted only 21 days. Most days we were shooting in the center of Jerusalem. We worked with a telephoto lens, so the camera was far from the actresses; that gave us the ability to use the passersby, who were crossing the frame, instead of extras. That helped us to keep a sort of authenticity and, of course, saved money.
The opening scene is particularly strong, how did the actors feel about shooting the search scenes?
Since the searching process is a very sensitive subject, we decided that the actresses who played the Palestinian women who were being searched would not be Arabs, but Jews. Everybody, even in Israel, is convinced that these women are Palestinians, because actually we all look alike.
Do you want to show the film in the Palestinian territories too? Why is that important to you?
Yes, we want to show the film in the Palestinians territories, because, although we focused on the two young soldiers, the Palestinians are part of this story. It’s interesting for us to see what they feel about it.
From the outside, it may seem that Israelis and Palestinians can’t talk with each other, but individuals can talk quite easily. It’s the authorities who fail to, or don’t really want to establish a way of dialogue.
Who did you make the film for?
The film was aimed at the Israeli audience. The Israelis don’t like to see films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because they live in it and have too much of it in the media. Actually, they are sick and tired of this conflict, which has lasted too many years, and they have become indifferent to it. In this film we tried to wake them up with a point of view which has never been seen before. From the reaction to the film it seems that we succeeded: People said that the film was very strong and caused them to think about the place they live in. We couldn’t expect more.
Interview by kind permission of Soda Pictures.
Close to Home is released in London on the 6th April.