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Jewish Journal

Israel’s military women fight to get real story on big screen

by Curt Schleier

March 22, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Neama Shendar and Smadar Saya in "Close to Home."

Neama Shendar and Smadar Saya in "Close to Home."

As Vidi Bilu recalls it, she and Dalia Hager were working on a series they were hoping to sell to Israeli television, when their conversation turned to their experiences in the military. Even in the Holy Land, it is not typical for women "to talk about their memories of the army," she says. But the chat got them thinking that their experiences might make a good film.

The result is "Close to Home," a film festival favorite -- it won awards in Jerusalem and Berlin and was selected for six others -- that opens March 23 at the Beverly Hills Laemmle Music Hall and March 30 at the Encino Town Center. No one, she says, has ever made a movie about the women in the Israeli army.

Then she qualifies that to say, "There was a movie some years ago. A very ridiculous one. It made the women out to be horrors."

Bilu is on the phone from Jerusalem, and her English, while good, is heavily accented. Horrors? The women were horrors? She repeats the word a couple of times and tries to come up with a synonym. Soon, though, it becomes clear that the earlier movie made the women out to be whores.

But Bilu, 48, and Hager, 44, who co-wrote and co-directed the feature, had nobler ambitions.

"They give away their youth," she says of young women who enter military service at age 18. "We wanted to show how it goes, what they feel like."

It is part a buddy movie and part political.

"We wanted to tell a story about life in Israel, and we wanted to tell a story about the environment in the army for women," Bilu says. "The reality in Israel is that you can't really live your life [apart from politics]. The relationship between politics and your life -- you're always affected by it."

The film's two principal characters are Smadar, who rebels against authority, and Mirit, an immature goody-two-shoes who would have preferred duty further away from her parents. They are assigned to patrol Jerusalem, where their job is to stop Arab passersby, check their identity cards and write down information for a special form. It is humiliating for the Palestinians and degrading for the Jews.

They don't like each other and don't like what they're forced to do. But everything changes when a bomb explodes on their post and Mirit is injured. The experience inexorably draws them closer together, which enables them to better cope with their horrible, yet necessary, mission Many of the incidents in "Closer to Home" faithfully record what happened to the two writers. Bilu, who feels she is more like Smadar in personality -- that is rebellious -- was caught near and injured by a bomb explosion like Mirit is in the film. Like Mirit, too, she was briefly imprisoned for dancing with a foreigner when she was supposed to be on duty at a hotel.

"I did this [more than] 25 years ago," she says about her own duty. "Nothing has changed" -- with the possible exception that the women carry heavy rifles now where they previously only carried small pistols. There is a scene at the end of the movie where Israelis attack an Arab they believe touched one of the soldiers. It happens, she says, "on very hot days, when things get really stressed after a bomb or a great intifada, people on the street are very alert and very nervous, and it's very easy to blame people they don't like.

"The film," she continues, has a "humanitarian point of view more than anything else. I get sick of trying to define myself as left wing or right wing.... I take a humanistic point of view. I take a look at the situation [the conflict between Arab and Jews], and it's not good for us. That is the point of the film.

"I have become very pessimistic lately. I've lived here 48 years and [there have been times when] we've come very close to peace, and then something happens [to ruin it] because of the politicians, either on our side or theirs. I think we've come used to living with disappointment."

Bilu used to participate in peace demonstrations but doesn't any longer.

"I think the only way to live in Israel is to close yourself [down] and hope for something good to happen," she says.

"It's very complicated, not a very simple situation," she continues. "You also have these layers of feeling about the Holocaust, the idea that we don't have another place to live in this world and nobody wants us."

Bilu is an eighth-generation Israeli. When she grew up, her grandparents told her about the old days, pre-1948, when Arabs and Jews got along "because there was nothing to fight about. They were neighbors."

Her father fought in the Palmach. Her parents are still alive, and she visits them at least every other Friday for a Shabbat meal.

"It's quiet. I like the tradition of it," she says.

Bilu is currently at work on another script, a coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem before 1967. It, too, is based on her own experiences.

"It's about my childhood in those days before everything started," she explains.

"For me it was the end of my youth. I really liked Jerusalem in those days."

"Close to Home" opens March 23 at the Beverly Hills Music Hall 3 and March 30 at the Encino Town Center 5. For more information, visit http://www.laemmle.com/viewmovie.php?mid=2897.
Click the BIG ARROW for the 'Close to Home' trailer.

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