You really couldn't make this stuff up. A cadre of Filipino transvestites taking care of elderly Jews in Tel Aviv, who perform drag acts by night? And yet that is exactly what Tomer Heymann's documentary Paper Dolls concerns itself with. The five flamboyant individuals Heymann focuses on were part of the influx of some 300,000 foreign workers who poured into Israel when that country cut off Palestinian labor in 2000.
Let it be said right off that none of them is particularly beautiful or talented, which somehow makes their strange situation all the more affecting. They attempt to take their lip-synching act, The Paper Dolls, to a big, chic Tel Aviv nightclub, but, instead of glamorous stardom, they are made to feel distinctly second-class, described by a snotty booker as unprofessional and fit only for a bus stop. The depiction of the kind of harsh judgment that exists even within the beset gay community is all too clear. And yet, the freedom these caregivers experience in Tel Aviv is preferable to the constraints they found in the Philippines.
But their stay in Israel is threatened by increasing crackdowns on illegal immigrants, and one of their number is detained, a horrible experience. Despite Heymann's often clumsy technique and sometimes baldly opportunistic approach, a real human story emerges, and you sincerely root for these unlikely, uncomely souls. Most touching of all is the relationship between one of them and the dying old man she cares for. Despite the rueful remarks both Israelis and Filipinos make about each other--the former are ungrateful and quick to cast you off and accuse you of stealing; the latter, in the words of a bilious cabdriver, are "like animals, disgusting"--a beautiful bond of empathy is apparent here. The aged cancer victim, who can only communicate through writing, has an angelic tolerance and patience in his simple acceptance of his nurse's life choice and dogged attempts to correct her grammar, while the Filipino's breakdown at his inevitable funeral makes you realize that, at least with him, she really had found both family and home.