Throughout the semester, we have watched a lot of films pertaining to the topic of gender variance. The films have been especially beneficial because they have contextualized and humanized the topics of this course. It is easy to get wrapped up in the theoretical frameworks and academia surrounding gender variance and forget that we are discussing people. Each of the movies we watched underscored the personal elements and struggles beneath all of that formalistic theory, and they helped established a real-life context for what we learned in our readings and lectures. Of all the films we watched, I think Paper Dolls did this best.
Paper Dolls is a 2006 documentary by Israeli director Tomer Heymann. It explores patterns of global immigration and social tolerance through a group of Filipino transgender individuals who live in Isreal. You get to know Chiqui, Giorgio, Cheska, Jan, and Sally through not only the work they do on stage as the Paper Dolls, a drag performance troupe, but also the work they do as caretakers of the elderly. Chiqui, Giorgio, Cheska, Jan, and Sally all came to Israel from the Philippines seeking greater acceptance toward their sexual and gender identities. While Israel allowed them certain freedoms they did not have at home, it was not without harsh working conditions, prejudice, and the constant threat of deportation.
Since we all watched this film, I’ll stop the plot synopsis there and delve into what I found most interesting about this film. The first thing that struck me about this movie was the director’s emotional involvement with the Paper Dolls. In most documentaries, the filmmaker establishes a distance between him/herself and the subject of the film. In Paper Dolls, the director, Tomer Heymann, allows himself to get involved with the subject. I found this to add a lot of poignancy and intimacy to the film. After doing some research and learning that the film is actually an abbreviation of 5 years and 320 hours of filming, it makes sense that Tomer Heymann would become so entrenched in the lives of the Paper Dolls. If just watching the 80-minute film and the brief glimpses into the lives of the Paper Dolls that it offered made me feel somewhat connected to them and invested in their lives, I would imagine that five years would form an inseparable bond.
I also appreciated how this film touched on many of the topics we discussed regarding transgender immigration and the circle of care. In Paper Dolls, a bomb exploded in the street of an immigrant neighborhood, and the police encouraged residents to seek medical attention, promising them that they would not get deported. This scene brought to light the delicate struggle of being an illegal immigrant and having to chose between your health and where you live.
Another thing, perhaps the most prominent thing, that I enjoyed about this documentary was the resolute graciousness and optimism of the Paper Dolls. Even after bombings, discrimination, exploitation, and mistreatment from their employers, the Paper Dolls remained positive, kind, and respectful. In a scene where one of the Paper Dolls is accused of stealing from her former employer, she calmly reasons her employer’s accusation as a result of his anger about her leaving. Where others would react with resent, she reacted with compassion.
The only complaint I have about Paper Dolls is that it sometimes feels incomplete in its narrative of the Paper Dolls’ lives. This is understandable, of course, since it was originally filmed to be a six-part series on Israel TV. My other complaint, then, is that I don’t know where to find the miniseries! Overall, Paper Dolls is a moving portrayal of the pragmatic, sometimes dichotomous lives of trangender immigrants, and it truly connects the audience with Chiqui, Giorgio, Cheska, Jan, and Sally.