To See if I’m Smiling. Directed by Tamar Yarom. Zurich: First Hand Films, 2007.
Leila Khaled: Hijacker. Directed by Lina Makboul. Zurich: First Hand Films, 2006.
My Daughter the Terrorist. Directed by Beate Anestad and Morten Daae. New York: Women Make Movies, 2007.
The three films reviewed here focus on women involved in armed struggle, whether through a state army (in the Israeli film To See if I am Smiling) or through paramilitary groups involved in struggles for statehood (Tamil Eelam in My Daughter the Terrorist and Palestine in Leila Khaled: Hijacker). The films share little in terms of documentary style, gender politics, or the relationship of filmmaker and subject, but they all highlight a loaded set of questions around gender in militarized environments.
Tamar Yarom’s To See if I’m Smiling consists of interviews with six Israeli women who spent their mandatory army service in the occupied Palestinian territories. The interviews (conducted a few years after the women were released) are intercut with archival footage as well as daily scenes of army operations in the West Bank and Gaza strip. The strength of the film lies in the fact that the women are all thoughtful and candid, relaying directly to the camera detailed descriptions of horrific moments in their service in which they abused their power or otherwise acted in a way that conflicts with their personal ethics. These unmediated testimonies are a powerful exposé of the corrupt daily routines of the occupation and the gross human rights violations involved in its maintenance. But more important, at least in the logic of the film, these honest and intimate interviews attest to the damage (psychological, emotional, and ethical) these women still experience. Most of them tear up when describing decisions they could have made but did not. A couple discuss the depression that ensued, anger management, and a shuttered sense of self, and another giggles repeatedly, exemplifying post-traumatic symptoms.
While all these symptoms surely occur in male soldiers as well, it is perhaps not surprising that women pioneer the discussion on the traumatic impact of one’s service. The film can be commended for creating a safe space for the women to expose themselves and bring to light these personal and moral issues. However, while the women were traumatized by their experiences, the film gives no sense that it mobilized the women toward any action or critique that will change the political reality of Israel. Like good little women, their trauma and dilemmas are mostly kept private and hidden from the people around them. The film reiterates this sense of private testimony by failing to ask questions that go beyond the personal experiences and choices made. No analysis is offered or solicited, and so the political issues around the occupation, its wider implications for Palestinians and Israelis, and the ethical stance that led these women to serve (and not refuse to do so) are not addressed. Especially because the film is about women only, the complete lack of political and historical context sadly reinforces stereotypes of women as lacking in analytical or leadership skills, and as participants, but not facilitators, in social life and its reform.
Leila Khaled: Hijacker is a reflexive documentary as much about director Lina Makboul's journey as it is about Khaled herself. Makboul—a Swede of Palestinian origin —confesses that she has always idolized Khaled but also questions the use of political violence. In the first fifteen minutes of the film Makboul recounts, through voice-over with extensive use of archival footage and some interviews, the story of the two hijackings in which Khaled participated. The next thirty-five minutes feature interactions between Khaled and Makboul and a plethora of interviews, as well as footage of daily-life minutiae like walking the dog and preparing food. The discussions between Makbul and Khaled invite complex consideration of the injustices done to the Palestinian civilian population, thus historicizing the debates about terrorism and political violence and providing coherent and well-articulated political positions. Khaled, who throughout the film looks like a great matriarch (she scolds Makboul for not eating enough, orchestrates her family, and instructs Makboul to get pregnant soon), is fearless and sharp in the interviews, speaking in a tone reminiscent of her younger, forceful self. Makboul maximizes the tension between the soft-looking, middle-aged woman and the fierce warrior of the past, but does not harness it to a gendered analysis. While Khaled herself offers the analysis that she was treated differently by the media because she is a woman, Makboul asks questions that are similar to those of the journalists: Was it hard to undergo plastic surgeries and change her beautiful face? Was it hard not to have a social life (or, as the subtext seems to ask, a love life)? Furthermore, Makboul never asks Khaled what it was like to fight alongside the men or how she was treated by them, her family, or her social milieu. At one point she asks Khaled how she would feel if her sons partook in violent resistance, and Khaled replies that it would have been natural for them if they lived in Palestine. Makboul does not probe into gendered issues, and seems unaware when her own questions reiterate gendered stereotypes about terrorism and the place of women in it. Since the film provides a complex portrait of Khaled otherwise, this omission is particularly unfortunate.
Beate Anestad and Morten Daae’s My Daughter the Terrorist follows two Tamil Black Tigers young women, Darshika and Puchalchadar, as well as Darshika's mother, Antonia. Darshika and Puchalchadar, who have been living guerrilla lives since they were teenagers, escaped the Sri Lankan civil war to join Tamil forces. Their training is for full combat, but it is understood that they may be called upon for a suicide operation, an honor they would both be willing to fight each other for. The film ties the rationale for joining the Black Tigers to childhood traumas experienced during the civil war and, especially, to the feeling of vulnerability and humiliation inflicted by the Sri Lankan army. Through Antonia's and Darshika's stories, as well as through archival footage and present-day cinematography, the film gives a glimpse into the lives of Tamil women at a time of war.
This seemingly unmediated access to daily lives (both civilian and in training) is both the film's strength and its weakness. It is powerful since it does provide a nuanced view into a world otherwise not exposed (for instance, Darshika—a Catholic—wanted to become a nun before the war). But it is also problematic in that the film hardly contextualizes the images, especially when it comes to gender politics. The young women seem extremely naïve as they discuss politics; at the same time, they are in awe of their leader, the one who decides how to fight for self-determination and whether one of them will be sent on a suicide mission. The total subordination of these women may be present with the men as well, but since there are no men interviewed (or seen) in the film, what viewers see are two naïve, unquestioning, submissive girls. Furthermore, while the film shows the two women conducting practice exercises with each other in the field, it never shows them with fellow combatants (men or women). The filmmaker also never asks about the gender dynamic within the camp, or outside in society, and so the stories are left as individual stories, and not as part of an argument about Tamil women who join the Black Tigers to fight along men.
While the mainstream media deals with women fighters in sensational ways—ways that sexualize the women, or present them as victims, cold hearted, monstrous, or anything but normal according to prescribed femininity—the films discussed here treat the women as willful agents in a society plagued with conflict. The choice to fight, alongside men, is treated as a deliberate choice and its consequences explored within the complex web of national belonging, militarized societies, and personal dynamics. As such, all three films enable audiences to engage with questions about gender and militarism, questions that are rarely addressed, despite the growing number of women in armed service worldwide.1
1 For further reading on women and militarism/war to supplement the screening of these films in the classroom, see Cynthia Enloe’s Maneuvers (University of California Press, 2000) and Does Khaki Become You (South End Press, 1983), and the edited anthologies Feminists Under Fire: Exchanges Across War Zones (ed. Wenona Giles et al., Between the Lines, 2003), and Women and the Politics of Military Confrontation: Palestinian and Israeli Gendered Narratives of Dislocation (ed. Nahla Abdo and Ronit Lentin, Berghahn, 2002).