We only managed to catch one film at the Melbourne International Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. It was an Israeli documentary called Bubot Niyar, or “Paper Dolls”. Bubot Niyar is about a group of Filipina bakla working as domestic carers in Tel Aviv, who run a drag queen show called “Paper Dolls” in Tel Aviv’s Filipino community.
After the start of the second intifada, the Israeli government ejected most of its Palestinian workers and began to encourage increased migration from the Phillippines to fill the resulting labour shortage. Guest workers were given visas that expire automatically if a worker loses his/her job; a third tier of citizenship is already-divided Israel. The participants in Bubot Niyar all lived in Tel Aviv, and got together one night a week to perform in the local Filipino community, hang out and support each other. Most of the members of the Paper Dolls originally came to Israel around 2001; but by 2005, they had all left again, either having lost their jobs and thus been detained and deported for ‘visa infringements’, or simply found life in Israel too difficult. Bubot Niyar spans this period of four years.
Curious to find a film that brings together so many of the things I’m thinking about at the moment: the racialisation and genderedness of domestic workers; the precarity of living in a country which removes its approval of your stay if you lose your job, and the resulting paranoias about being deported. But “Bubot Niyar” also works as a documentation of negotiating the everyday hassles of being gender-variant, particularly in a situation where one does not own any space, where one’s rights are dependent on the pleasure of the boss. Chiqui works as a live-in housekeeper for a disabled elderly man in a block of flats. Unable to dress as a woman in the flat itself, she changes from ‘male drag’ to ‘female drag’ in the stairwell, keeping a look-out in case anyone catches her, stuffing her jeans and shirt in a shopping-bag before walking out into the street.
The members of the troupe are not only marked as both racially other and gender variant onstage as performers, lip-synching to pop songs, but in everyday interactions where their long hair, earrings and feminine appearances stand out. Compared to the Phillipines, where the constraints of family and community mean many bakla are unable to live as women, Israel is relatively ‘liberal’. They attract staring, double-takes, children’s questions, incredible racist/transphobic monologues, exploitation by a nightclub owner determined to make their act ‘professional’ by forcing them to wear ‘Asian themed’ kimonos and whiteface. On the way home from this same club, three Paper Dolls chat amicably with a taxi-driver. When they leave, he confides to Heymann, “They’re disgusting. They make me sick. Dirty foreigners. Sure, you go home with a nice girl, and then you find out she’s a man. You beat her up and throw her out, and then you’re the laughing-stock of your friends for weeks.” Actually, his language was worse, and I can’t even remember the filthiest racist/transphobic epithets; but it was evident that he felt drag queens were a specifically non-Israeli phenomenon, and that they endangered the purity of Israel. So much for escaping fascism.
This made the film hard to watch, but what made it worse was, at the beginning anyhow, a collusion in exploitation by the director, Tomer Heymann. Heymann is filmed interviewing the troupe, hanging out with them backstage at gigs, and by the end of filming, he says they feel like family. At the same time, he orientalises the Paper Dolls: although he himself is gay, he finds them (and films them as) doubly exotic and ’strange’, incessantly sexualised, objectified. Heymann’s introductory voiceover states that he found the drag troupe in a back street and that, half revulsed, half intrigued, he wanted to find out more about them. (Can you imagine if, say, Paris is Burning began with Jennie Livingstone making such a remark?) Throughout, Heymann needlessly challenges the participants’ identities. So when Sally, a flirtatious and out-going bakla, asserts that she’s a woman, Heymann says, “No, Sally, no, you’re half-man, half-woman! You’re not a real woman!”
Halfway through, it’s as if events overtake Heymann’s exoticist project, or force him to take the Dolls’ situation seriously. Suicide bombings take place in the migrant/Filipino distract of Tel Aviv, and despite the government’s assurances that anyone treated for injuries sustained in bombings will not be arrested, immigration police start raiding houses looking for ‘illegals’. It’s difficult to know when this began happening in the timeline of the film: if there was a point when the Israeli government decided to cracked down on the growing ‘illegal’ population, or if this was simply an ongoing condition of migrant life in Israel. Cheska, one of the participants, loses her job, meaning she’s classified as an ‘illegal’. Since walking on the street risks arrest, Cheska is confined to her flat. We see her on her balcony, where she says she likes to sit, as watching the people outside in the street makes her feel less depressed. Finally, Cheska is caught and deported. The other Paper Dolls reconsider their options. One by one, they leave: some to London, some back home to the Phillipines.
Bubot Niyar is one of those films where only the subjects make it bearable to watch; and where, despite the film’s representation of them, they manage to fuck with it enough to ’shine through’. (Forgive the torpid sentimentality of that phrase.) Or maybe it’s one of those films that, despite the intentions of its producers, manages to stumble on politics, the insane paradoxes of global capitalism and binary gender, and say something. Sally says the troupe is named Paper Dolls because they are like copies of ‘real’ women, but the toughness and strength of these people is nothing like paper. Steel, maybe.
I don’t understand how Bubot Niyar could have been eligible for an award celebrating queer cinema at the Berlin Film Festival. How to give an award to a director when he’s so self-absorbed? It’s likely that the director will always regard Bubot Niyar as an extension of his own concerns. Particularly, it emerges in a Q&A at the Berlin Film Fest, an excavation of his own racism and ignorance about migrant workers. (Sigh.) But it’s still worth seeing.
As a post-script: Worth noting also, in an ironic twist, that the Paper Dolls themselves couldn’t get tourist visas to be in Berlin for Bubot Niyar’s premiere last year. The borders are everywhere and (almost) all the time.