Close To Home (Karov La Bayit)

Israel (2005) Dirs. Vardit Bilu & Dalia Hager

Jerusalem and the young women of the city are conscripted for military service assisting the Israeli Border Police, mainly patrolling the streets to confirm the IDs of the nationals, catch unregistered Arabs and any potential threats to national security. The outgoing and rebellious Smadar (Smadar Sayar) and the shy sensible Mirit (Naama Schendar) are paired together for patrol much to the displeasure of both, as the latter wants to change units while the former just doesn’t care for the job. This oil and water combination fails to gel initially until a near tragedy brings the pair together

Buddy movies are a staple of modern cinema, especially Hollywood, and usually involve men. Outside of Thelma and Louise, few are recognisable for featuring women, so it falls to two former Israeli female soldiers, Vardit Bilu and Dalia Hager, to start that list with a film based loosely on their own experiences in the Israeli army.

The first thing to strike the uninitiated – such as yours truly – is how much like the western world Jerusalem is. If – like me – you were expecting it to be a drab, stone clad metropolis with women all covered up like in Iran and signs of modernity and consumerism completely absent then you are in for a shock.

The streets are as glossy, modern and commercially alive as any western city and the fashions are not inhibiting or obscuring. Despite obvious threat of military based danger looming in the air, Jerusalem is abuzz with vitality, verve and positive vibes, and if our two leads are any indication, the regular problems of young women, life, love and boredom, are prime concerns here as well.

This makes it easier for us to relate to the plight of Smadar and Mirit despite the language, cultural and geographical boundaries. Smadar clearly refuses to bow down to authority, despite representing it, happier to shirk her responsibilities to enjoy a quick smoke, a hair cut or a go window shopping.

Mirit is the earnest one who doesn’t want any trouble, and insists on doing her job, the idea of the pairing that this will rub off on Smadar. Instead Mirit shifts towards Smadar’s lazy ways. They are not alone, as the other girls in the unit are also underperforming in the eyes of their senior Captain Dubek (Irit Suki) who makes unannounced inspections, which the girls warn each other of via mobile phone; if not them, some of the local traders are on hand to impart this warning in their place.

After the bomb blast where Mirit was nearby and knocked out but only shaken up, Smadar is put in the position of telling Mirit’s family, who welcome their daughter’s colleague into their home out of gratitude. Mirit is awoken by a handsome stranger (Danny Geva) who promptly disappears only to reappear at regular intervals about town.

Mirit is naturally hesitant to chase after him so Smadar steps in with a helping hand. Mirit’s confidence begins to grow marking the beginning of her downfall. When a guest (Damian Szmulewitz) at a major function at which the unit is providing security, asks Mirit to dance, Smadar encourages her to accept and she does – only for Dubek to catch her in the act. Mirit is punished with a short stay in military prison for which she blames Smadar, instigating the rift between them.  

If there is a political message in this film it is well hidden which is another remarkable facet about this film. With so many films from the Middle East almost confined to reflecting on the political and religious aspects of life in their country, it is refreshing to see a film eschew this to tell a simple story about two ordinary girls with ordinary problems set in a troubled land.

If anything the agenda seems to be to show the rest of the world  what they don’t see on the news about Israel, while also dispelling the myths that all Middle Eastern countries are openly oppressive towards women. The nearest we get to any kind of political allusion is in a scene on a bus where the girls are checking the passengers for ID when a male a passenger (Robert Hoening) draws their attention to a unattended bag on the bus which they failed to notice. He later admits it was his bag, making the point that the girls should be more observant. Perhaps then, this is the message: that Israel is only as safe as the people tasked with the country’s security allow it to be.

If there is one gripe I have about this film as far as credibility and verisimilitude, it is that the females are all very attractive and glamorous – and by that I mean that for military conscripts they all wear make-up (subtle but enough to show), have perfect skin and well groomed hair. Whether this is genuine among serving Israeli military women I don’t know but surely they don’t all look like the models and are allowed to wear make-up, especially on duty?

Putting this aside, the cast are all well suited to their roles and inhabit them with apparent ease and understanding as they were playing themselves. Naama Schendar, in her debut role, has the perfect girl next door look about her for the role of Mirit, while the more experienced Smadar Sayar’s steely eyes and distrusting demeanour is eminently suited to her role as the rebellious Smadar.

A nod also goes to Irit Suki as Dubek, who is able to bring a touch of humanity to an otherwise strict character who is hiding an equally playful side behind her tough military outer skin.

Close To Home is a revelation on many levels, not in the least showing us that Israel is not as distanced from our own worlds as we may think, while regaling us with a charming and effective tale of human bonding while flying the flag for empowered women. A pleasant treat of a film.