Sunday, 18 March 2012

Close to Home

Lowdown: Two female Israeli border police soldiers grapple with life, love and occupation.
Close to Home, or Karov LaBait in its original Hebrew title, is an Israeli film from 2005. It follows two female soldiers on mandatory army service drafted to the border police and stationed at Jerusalem, where their main duty is to patrol the city center’s streets and collect the details of Arabs passing by. Despite the shadow of suicide bombings always looming our soldiers are much more focused on the mundane: their romantic relationships, fashion and the fact they don’t care much for one another.
I have a problem with the way Close to Home is expressing itself. As I watched it I felt mildly puzzled as to what it was this movie was trying to tell me. In retrospect, though, it becomes clear the intention was to show the corrupting nature of the Israeli occupation: all the shit that happens to our two female heroines during the course of Close to Home, whether personal or occupational (if one can refer to army service in such a way), is affected by the Israeli occupation of Palestinians. However, even with this insight in hand, Close to Home is still unable to avoid the most basic of narrative problems: I felt very unable to identify with, relate to or even mildly understand its two main characters.
Not that I found Close to Home entirely bad. With its fairly accurate depictions of Israeli army life, you could say I had plenty of reasons to like Close to Home: it reminded me of the years I have wasted in that service and how much I hated it (and, for what it’s worth, still do). Officers’ silly and aloft notions, the whole absurdity of the circumstances the soldier finds himself/herself at when surrounded by other mandatory draftees, it’s all there. So, for that matter, is the presence of central Jerusalem, an area that is not often talked about when Jerusalem is referred to as a tourist destination (in contrast to the Old City), but the area where the core of contemporary Jewish Jerusalem life is and also the area where most suicide bombings took place. If one is after a relatively authentic depiction of Israeli army life, then Close to Home would not be a bad start.
I do, however, have to qualify this observation: most female Israeli soldiers do not serve in such confronting roles. More anecdotally, and based on my personal familiarity with girls serving with the border police, the characters from Close to Home do not match the personalities I have seen in the field.
This brings me to note how a peculiarity: watching Close to Home and its personally familiar environment, I realized that viewers unfamiliar with Israeli culture might miss a lot of fine detail. (Which leaves me wondering how much I’m missing when watching films coming from cultures I’m generally unfamiliar with.) Take our heroeines’ female commanding officer, for example: she is commonly referred to as “Dubek”, and the SBS subtitles kept it at that. However, as any Israeli would tell you, Dubek is a brand of cheap Israeli made cigarettes that’s popular with soldiers (whose income is quite low throughout their mandatory service). Thus Dubek is not the officer’s real name but rather something between a nickname and an insult, a point that is probably lost with most international viewers.
Another such case is delivered by the film’s name. Close to Home, in Israeli army jargon, refers to being placed at a position where the soldier gets to go home every night (or almost every night). The alternative is being stuck at the army base, often for weeks on time; one can clearly see how close to home positions would be sought after and fought for by would be soldiers. However, I suspect the point of the movie was to show the less than glorious side of such “close to home” positions (as well, of course, as pointing out the harm of being an occupier reaches into people's homes).
Best scene: The opening scene, where a soldier supervised by an officer searches through an Arab woman’s handbag and then body searches her, is incredibly effective.
Overall: A mixed bag. I’m happy to have watched Close to Home, but I find it hard to give it more than 2.5 out of 5 stars.

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