Struggling to Remain Humane


How one Jewish documentary squashed my naïve view of female Israeli combat soldiers

by Michelle Cove
I have to admit it. I bought into the fantasy that women in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are kick-ass soldiers, fierce and strong and without any emotion—a little like female action-figure dolls. I don’t know exactly where this idea came from. My ignorance probably had something to do with the fact that I don’t know any Jewish women in the military whatsoever and would occasionally see images of ripped IDF women glorified in posters or calendars.

Then I watched Tamar Yaron’s documentary, To See If I’m Smiling (Lir’ ot Im Ani Mehayechet), distributed in 2008 by Women Make Movies, and was ashamed of my assumptions. Of course women would have deeply complicated feelings about combat; many of us have complicated feelings about most things in life. Yaron’s hour-long documentary begins by stating that “IDF is the only army in the world to implement a law-binding compulsory drafting of women,” and that girls are recruited for a two-year period at age 18.

The documentary then immediately launches into the stories of six women soldiers, all of whom are in jobs that bring them face to face with the violence of war. (Mind you, we do not see women pushing papers at desk jobs in this film; we are following combat women stationed in Gaza and the West Bank.) There is Metal, a medical officer, who enters her two-year service craving action and drama. All too soon, of course, she is seeing and handling bloody bodies, alive and dead. One of her most haunting memories is that she allowed a friend to take a picture of her with a dead Palestinian man, and they both thought this was funny at the time. Looking back, Metal wonders how she could have ever laughed at something like that and confesses that, upon being released from the army, she spent many late nights drinking to dull the emotional pain.

Potem, an observer for the IDF, admits that when she first joined the army, she relished the power of calling over men “at the lift of a finger.” But when Potem finds out that Israeli soldiers tortured a young Palestinian boy that she herself had reported for suspicious-looking behavior, Potem gets upset and tells her supervisor the boy was treated unfairly. She believes the Israeli soldiers will be reprimanded for bad behavior; instead, the supervisor buries the story and creates a fake report. Potem considers calling a journalist, anyone, to confess the truth, but doesn’t. Instead, she lives with her anger and guilt and also with the isolation that came when her fellow soldiers realized she had ratted on them. For Potem, it was a lesson in staying quiet while “struggling to remain humane.”

Let me say, if it sounds like this film is anti-Israeli, that was not my take. These women’s experiences sounded quite similar to stories about U.S. soldiers who entered the military at age 18 ready to take on the world and left feeling demoralized. Nor did I feel the film was taking a particularly anti-military stance; rather, it seemed to be asking a question about military life: Is there any way to better prepare soldiers for the enormous psychological transformation they are about to endure? Should anything be done about the glorified expectations of a new combat soldier? Is it necessary to allow them to hold on to their innocence for as long as possible? Would giving them a real sense of what’s coming be a mistake that might impact their performance, even cost them their lives? This strikes me as one hell of a good question to debate.

My main issue with the film was that it lacked context. Yaron should have let audiences know in the film (not just in the press kit) that she herself enrolled and served at age 18 in the Occupied Territories. Her personal feelings clearly play into this story. I also needed holes filled in: How many female combat soldiers are drafted into the IDF each year? (About 1,500.) What percentage of combat soldiers are women? (About 3 percent.) How many staff officers in the Officers Training Course are women? (About 55 percent.) I appreciate the majority of the film being told from the characters’ point of view, but a little context goes a long way.

Overall, I appreciated Yaron taking us into a world many of us women know little or nothing about, and reminding me that these women in combat are not heartless action figures kicking ass. Rather, they are flesh-and-blood women often struggling to serve their country well while holding on to their humanity.

To See If I’m Smiling won the Silver Wolf Award and the Audience Award at the International Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam (IDFA); the Special Jury Prize: International Documentary Feature at Hot Docs; Best Documentary at the Haifa International Film Festival; as well as other festival awards. Visit Women Make Movies to learn more.

About the Author

Michelle CoveMichelle Cove
Michelle Cove is the editor of 614 and the director of the feature-length documentary Seeking Happily Ever After: One generation’s struggle to redefine the fairytale ( She is also the author of the book Seeking Happily Ever After: How to navigate the ups and downs of being single without losing your mind (and finding lasting love along the way) (Tarcher/Penguin, 2010).

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