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Close to Home
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by Marc Kandel

"An Illuminating tale of two female Israeli soldiers in over their heads."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: ďClose To HomeĒ boasts captivating, performances from intricate characters blended with admirable neutrality and exemplary storytelling where bias and melodrama could easily be substituted. There is stomach churning tension juxtaposed with warmth, humor and lighthearted discovery, told through skilled eyes and smart speech. This is to date, my favorite offering from the Tribeca Film Festival.

This story follows two women of differing values, growing closer through the experiences of their complicated, overwhelming duties as Border Police in the Israeli Defense Force. Mirit (Neama Shendar), an introverted, high-strung soldier is paired with mischievous, rebellious Smadar (Smadar Sayar) to patrol the Jerusalem border where Palestinians come through to get to their jobs in Israel. Mirit and Smadarís assignment consists of making their presence known on the street, registering any and all Arabs they encounter, watching for suspicious activity, and end of day searches of all Arab women going back across the border.

The two women do not get along. Mirit attacks the job with strict anxiety while Smadar does the bare minimum to fulfill service, looking busy for inspection but preferring to smoke or hang out and shop in the stores of their patrol area when unsupervised. Mirit works hard to make an impression with her tough but fair commander to earn a transfer farther away from her parents and a unit that despises her for being an informant during an inspection gone awry. Smadar is a wannabe-rebel growing increasingly frustrated with Miritís rigid adherence to the rules and yearning for more excitement than boring patrol duty offers.

After a frightening, devastating terrorist bombing in their sector, the two women grow closer, but it is an uneasy relationship, Smadar trying to get Mirit to loosen up without placing herself at risk of insubordination, and Mirit paying for Smadarís influence on her behavior, which grows increasingly irresponsible even as Smadar begins to take her job more seriously after witnessing the consequences.

The backdrop of this relationship is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, painted vividly through the thick atmosphere of dread as a bombing seems inevitable, and tensions are high not only between the soldiers and the Palestinian civilians, but between the Israeli soldiers themselves over their differing opinions on how to deal with the impossible conflict. But where a lesser filmmaker would have clear cut heroes and villains, there are no simple labels to slap on any of the characters; the Arabs shown as frustrated individuals caught between their home in Ramallah and their jobs in Jerusalem and the Israelis, conflicted in their duties but unwilling to allow the alternative of waves of suicide bombings and shelling upon their people.

It would be easy to characterize Mirit as a goody-two-shoes toady and Smadar as the free spirited individualist, but it is not so easy to corner them into these caricatures when we see Mirit sad and lonely, longing to have friends, date boys and have fun like a young woman her age should, and Smadar acting out through others, but taking little risk or brave stands herself; at heart unwilling to stick out in a crowd. As much as Smadar dislikes Miritís refusal to fit in with the other soldiers, there is something in Miritís uncompromising nature that Smadar subconsciously admires. But her admiration comes in the form of goading Mirit to disobey and make bad choices, which in the end, threatens to destroy their tenuous friendship.

At filmís end, we witness to a disturbing encounter that cements Mirit and Smadirís relationship, but also leaves us with the knowledge that these girls are overwhelmed in their situation with little aid and ability to help themselves, much less everyone they are supposed to protect. I was angry at the choice, as it seemed the film sloppily changed focus from the girls to a frank political statement, but after discussing it with a friend who recently returned after living in Israel for some time, I came to agree that it was the right choice, the only choice- that this was a final reminder of how these women are thrust into a situation they cannot hope to control with little ability to maintain order, and need to be able to count on each other, which plays back into the friendship. Perhaps the final shot could have been cut by about 10-15 seconds but honestly, at that point, it's a nitpick thatís barely worth mentioning; thatís a simple 10-15 seconds off from being a perfect film and its certainly not going to cost it the full five stars Iím giving it.

This film impresses by maintaining a compelling, personal storyline layered against a larger tale without falling into the trap of becoming an extended political debate, or a coming together in the face of adversity romp. In all, co-directors and writers Vardit Bilu, Vidi Bilu, and Dalia Hagar show us a world that can be at once claustrophobic yet grand, personal yet impartial and hardened yet joyful; an absolutely fascinating, enthralling film.

On a separate and thankfully lighter note, the statute of limitations has been reached on the Jewish poligamy ban instituted in the Middle Ages (fucking prude Crusaders ruining it for everyone else)- I have notified my wife that wife #2 will most certainly be Irit Suki, the commanding officer of the women's unit, bringing more than just an order barking army tough to the table as a well-rounded officer in touch with needs of her soldiers (and herself), who will not brook insubordination nor suffer fools, but is fair in her treatment of the women in her command, and very protective of them- its a great role, and I want to see more of this actress as well as the two leads. And uh... yeah, the wife thing would be just swell.

Whether you take it in for its politics, its superb exploration of what makes a friendship, its fly on the wall look at Israeli army life, or simply for provocative, insightful entertainment by filmmakers who know their craft, "Close to Home" is an all-round pleaser. See it.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=14432&reviewer=358
originally posted: 05/06/06 07:54:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2006 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  14-Feb-2007
  DVD: 19-Jun-2007

UK
  06-Apr-2007
  DVD: 23-Jul-2007

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Dalia Hager
  Vidi Bilu

Written by
  Dalia Hager
  Vidi Bilu

Cast
  Smadar Sayar
  Naaina Schendar
  Irit Suki
  Katia Zimbris



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