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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Paper Dolls
Paper Dolls
Strand Releasing // Unrated // March 13, 2007
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Daniel Siwek | posted June 21, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:
Maybe they're not quite ready for prime time, or on par with the t-girls at Lucky Cheng's, but the Paper Dolls have qualities that make them even more interesting and more endearing than your average pre-op. In Tomer Heymann's multiple award-winning (the Los Angeles Film Festival's, Audience Award, for one) documentary, we follow the Filipino Cabaret act, not in New York, or even Bangkok, but in Tel Aviv, a city that welcomed immigrant workers to compensate for the loss of the barred Palestinian workforce (due to the Intifada). We follow Giorgio, Cheska, Jan, Sally, and their leader, Chiqui, as they lead their daily lives (at the beauty salon, or the very unglamorous jobs of taking care of the elderly) until sunset when they become the Paper Dolls. When their somewhat clumsy act is onstage, they each exude a fabulous confidence and a sense of belonging, whether they dance in time or not, but om yhe streets they look like aliens . . .both physically and nationally. In many ways, this film has more to do with Lost In Translation than
Paris Is Burning; sure we get to see their backstage transformation -from misfit looking guys to showgirls- but they stick out of a crowd like Bill Murray walking the streets of Tokyo, with or without make-up.

Chiqui wheels her old man through the ultra-Orthodox part of town and if looks could kill, the Israeli Army wouldn't need tanks. Another weirder, even humorous juxtaposition occurs when she's with the Alzheimer's-suffering man in temple. Surrounded by a group of old religious men, Chiqui's got on headphones, and Abba's "The Winner Takes It All" comes bleeding through. "They are not open-minded," Chiqui says of the Jewish community she lives in. Like Chiqui, Jan changes into conservative clothing (like a guy) before coming to work, which comes off like a rebellious teenager when going out with friends. Jan also gets harassing looks when walking the street, and describes the alienation to Heymann: "You know how Israeli's are, they'll never love you." The barriers they face seem almost insurmountable, because hostility towards their sexual identity often seems to be a red herring. When they take a cab, the driver is amiable and polite, but when the filmmaker interviews him alone he is free to call the ladyboys, "disgusting creatures." Within a few sentences there is no distinction between calling the Filipina's or transsexuals, "stealing," or "thieving."

As bad as things sound in the Middle East, it's not all pity party for the Paper Dolls. They admit that they have more freedom to express themselves in Tel Aviv then they ever did in their native country, and they really let loose when they go down to the Red Sea resort city of Eilat, for Israel's very first gay pride parade. As vivid as if it were in the West Village or West Hollywood, they look like they're having a blast, and soundtrack's house groove fits the picture well. Paper Dolls shows the dichotomous nature of the Promised Land; on the one hand outsiders are scrutinized and excluded, and on the other it's the most progressive and hedonistic country in the region.

Whether Tomer Heymann knew when he wrote the "script" to this documentary, that more than the cab driver, he would take part one of its most important lessons, is irrelevant, because it works. Heymann is like many gay men who have struggled with their sexual identity only to be somewhat ignorant to the plight of the transgender. In one scene Sally asks him, "I am a woman, no?" To which he replies, "No, you are a half-woman." He refuses to identify the Paper Dolls as female, despite that being their preference amongst themselves. It becomes a game of he said/she said. Speaking of Chiqui, Giorgio say's, "Hi (pronounced he) yafeh me'od," which in Hebrew means, "she is very beautiful." The subtitles read, "He has a pretty face." Was it a mistake in the subtitle department? Is Heymann underscoring the loss of translation by literally messing with the translation? Or is the filmmaker deliberately undermining his own subject's desire to be identified as female? Who knows if Heymann knows, but by the time they start dressing him up in drag, it seems he's ready to explore what it all means.

Real drama enters the picture when the government announces that they will be rounding up all illegal immigrants either for deportation or to be sent to an enclosed camp. As their friend are getting picked up, some of the Paper Dolls go into hiding, and the ironic comparisons to Nazi Germany come out. In the end, even Heymann's mother is emotionally invested in her son's new friends, attentively listening to him vent about their issues. While the Paper Dolls have a pretty catchy theme song, it's the opening and closing cover of "Que Sera Sera" that says it all sweetly, and with very pretty graphics, but if that's not enough we get this quote: "That's how nature created you, with a little imagination and free thought."


Video: is presented in a cinematic 16x9 aspect ratio, which helps bring things to life. Those only familiar with Israeli street-life through bloody news footage will appreciate the access to the vibrant nightlife and brilliant sunshine. The video's color reflects that range but the blacks are also solid and rich. Shot in verité style, the whites blow out sometimes when the camera hastily moves from interior to exterior locations, and the nighttime shooting can be predictably grainy. The layer change was inconspicuous amidst the choppy editing.

Sound: The Paper Dolls DVD has a Dolby Digital soundtrack that is limited to 2.0 two channels. The field recording is adequate, and the nightclub music has the appropriate body. The version we have only gives you the option to listen to it in English (with English subtitles over other spoken languages), but apparently the other commercial editions offer your choice of English, Hebrew, or the Paper Dolls' home language of Tagalog.

Extras: Not much included here as far as extras but we do get the original trailer and several other trailers from the Strand stable.

This is Pernille Fischer Christensen's tale of "Charlotte" (Trine Dryholm), who leaves her boyfriend and cozy's up her transsexual neighbor, "Veronica" (David Dencik). The winner of the Best Debut Film and Silver Berlin Bear Awards at the Berlin International Film Festival, 2006.

Mysterious Skin
Gregg Araki's 2004 comeback movie didn't get the attention it deserved, but it was as stylish as it was powerful. One kid grows up to be a male hustler on a death trip (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); another grows up to be a schizophrenic who believes he was abducted by aliens (Brady Corbet).

Time to Leave
Otherwise known as Le Temps Qui Reste, this is François Ozon story of "Romain" (Melvil Poupaud), an up and coming photographer who is told that his days are numbered due to terminal cancer. The young gay man chooses to spend his last days with his bohemian grandmother (Jeanne Moreau), and from the trailer, it looks as if their scenes are incredibly intimate.

This is France's Almost Famous except with hot chicks and without the music history. "Lucie" (Isild Le Besco) is a young groupie that is in rapture with pop-idol "Lauren Waks" (Emmanuelle Seigner). When they meet, it's lesbian love. But with two women, it looks as they're two times the emotional problems.

Final Thoughts:
Tomer Heymann's adventure into the foreign world of transsexuals in a foreign land is intriguing and at times captivating. The overall theme of Universalism, is depicted through realistic points of view, and isn't as sugarcoated as it lets on. The opening and closing sequences are slick enough for VH1, MTV, or A&E and this group's real life drama provides a great canvas in which to explore a host of political and sexual issues.

Why are our days numbered and not, say, lettered? Woody Allen
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