One posed for a photo as she scrubbed a Palestinian corpse. Another stripped a man to his underwear and then beat him. A third helped cover up the abuse of a young boy.The six Israeli women who feature in the documentary “To See If I’m Smiling” each wrestle with memories of their compulsory military service that they would rather erase.
But after years of trying to bury the past, they have spoken out in a film that explores the darker side of Israel’s 40-year-old occupation of the Palestinian territories and examines its impact on a generation of young men and women.
“It’s easy to finish your military service and push it to the back of your mind,” said director Tamar Yarom. “But these girls are telling their personal stories — which are not always very nice — to show people what is going on.”
All but one of the women spent time as conscript soldiers in the Palestinian territories during the uprising that erupted in 2000. In the film, they recount their memories from that period, describing how they coped with military machismo and with the residual guilt about what they witnessed.
One girl who had wanted to save lives as a paramedic said she ended up scrubbing corpses to hide signs of abuse by Israeli soldiers. Visibly distressed, she looks for the first time in years at a photo of her and a dead Palestinian man.
“How in hell did I think I’d ever be able to forget?” she says, brushing away tears.
Although female soldiers are kept out of the front line, Israel is one of the only countries to enforce military service for women. Yarom aims to highlight the fragility of some girl soldiers — many still in their teens when they start their two year army stint — and the violence into which they are thrust.
“You expect women to be more sensitive to suffering and more empathetic to the other side. But the strength of the film is how it shows what happens to human beings in such a warped situation, and how women are not immune,” Yarom said.
Yarom hopes the documentary will prompt soul-searching in the Jewish state, where military service is a core part of national identity, and encourage other traumatized ex-soldiers to talk about violence they may have inflicted or witnessed.
“This country is in a coma. With all the bombs and attacks, we are numb,” she said.
“People feel we are in a war of survival and it’s better not to criticize soldiers, because they are the ones protecting us.”
Israel’s army said in a statement that soldiers adhere to a strict ethical code and that in exceptional cases, where the code is violated, an investigation is launched. It said the number of ethical violations involving Palestinians had “consistently dropped” since the events described in the film.
Yarom expects the film, which is due to be televised this weekend, to provoke criticism both from the Israeli left — because of her sympathetic portrayal of the soldiers — and from the right — which often balks at criticizing the army.
Yarom said personal experience prompted her to make the film. As a support soldier during the earlier intifada of the 1980s, she was shown a Palestinian torture victim but failed to speak out.
Almost two decades later, she still cannot shake the image of the man, slumped over a generator, his neck bent to the side and his face covered in blood.
“It’s the kind of picture that stays with you forever,” she said. “During my service I detached myself. When you try to re-attach yourself afterwards it’s painful.”