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Seeds of Summer.

Seeds of Summer (2007), the debut feature of Tel Aviv-based filmmaker Hen Lasker, documents girls' combat training for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the intensive course of instruction and preparation following every Israeli citizen's conscription at age 18. In the tradition of participatory documentary filmmaking, Lasker lived among the girls she was filming for 66 days and nights--an immersion that would not have been accessible to a male filmmaker, making this a necessarily woman-directed film. As an Israeli citizen (born in 1980), Lasker goes a step further in exceeding the outsider's perspective of Harlan County USA or Born into Brothels by returning to the site where she first fell in love, seven years earlier, with one of her fellow commanders--a woman. "To this day my mother thinks that if I hadn't served here, it never would have happened," acknowledges Lasker, and though worded ambiguously her meaning is clear: Lasker owes her lesbianism to the Israeli army.

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The provocation this presents to our idea of not just the military but all gender-segregated institutions is encouraged from the film's opening moments, in which parents bid their departing daughters farewell no differently than if they were off to summer camp. Here and throughout, there is a discomforting surrealism to the images that seems attributable to the tension between these unaccustomed glimpses of girls "playing" war and its hovering reality--even if only a minority of Israeli women conscripts go on to see active combat. Posing with a magazine of high-powered ammunition at her hip, one trainee exclaims "It's like The Terminator with Arnold Schwarzenegger!" This incongruity is enhanced, even as the tension is momentarily defused, by interspersing more familiar sights of teenage girl behavior: gossiping and snacking, phoning home for supplies and clean laundry, and shedding their heavy fatigues for bikinis during a day of R&R by the pool.

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As Tania Modleski has suggested, even films whose narratives criticize war typically wind up glorifying both war and the warrior (company in which I would include Kathryn Bigelow's roundly acclaimed The Hurt Locker). (1) Seeds of Summer is never prescriptive or partisan, but no matter what your politics, the sight of an 18-year-old girl (who looks much younger) firing an automatic weapon carries, at the very least, an unsettling note. The film is neither a knee-jerk reproof of war and war films, nor a narrowly disguised capitulation to both, nor a naively pacifist plea. Instead, Lasker lets the images, and subjects, speak for themselves. What they reveal is more canny, complex, and compelling than the conventional institutional expose. It is also an intervention on two stalwart cinematic traditions: the mythologizing of transcendent male bonding during wartime, and the converse defiling of women's relationships within representations of all-female institutions, from the girls' school to the women's prison.

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The sequences of girls training in the parched desert landscape have the same lyrical beauty of another female-directed combat-training film, Claire Denis's Beau Travail, just as both films invite a desiring gaze that is decidedly homoerotic (with far less subtlety in Beau Travail). Slouching in their fatigues, M-16s slung over their shoulders, the girls of Seeds of Summer become butch babes--or baby butches. No "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" claptrap here; Israel has welcomed homosexuals to serve openly in the military since 1993. When one of their own loses her virginity to her boyfriend while on a weekend pass, she admits to having shouted out her female drill sergeant's name. For Yarden, another recruit, the long-distance relationship mandated by military service is not seen as maintainable. "It'll be like a month before I see him again," she says matter-of-factly of her boyfriend, also undergoing army training. "I guess we should just part as friends." Whether this is budding lesbianism or just maturity is arguable, but what's evident is that the trainees are fascinated by the "older girls" in their midst. Giddily clustering around the filming Lasker, they stare into the lens and probe insistently for information on their crushes. "Smadar? I'm crazy about her," gushes Lotem about her commanding officer. "She's hot. She's the cutest."

At the same time, this remains an environment bound by discipline and conformity, where a too colorful hairband or talking while on guard duty earns you a humiliating dressing down and cancelled visitations. "Even if you come from a place where you were totally unique, here you are just one of many," Smadar lectures her new squad. "Yes it can be hard, but you have to learn to be strong. And remember you have each other." Reporting to Lasker afterward that she felt she had gone too easy on them, Smadar says, "I'm not supposed to be nice." "What are you supposed to be, a bitch?" Lasker asks. "Yes," Smadar responds.

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Under pressure to be stern and unsmiling with her trainees, Smadar gradually relaxes into a sweet flirtation with the just-offscreen Lasker. In the film's most natural-seeming, charming moment, Smadar listens wide-eyed as Lasker recounts her experience of finding her first love then confesses to newfound feelings. "It's embarrassing to look into the camera," says Smadar, "I feel naked." But with Lasker's encouragement, Smadar grows increasingly candid even if no explicit endearments are exchanged. Their mutual attraction comes through clearly, but is conveyed almost entirely through the expressions of tentative delight passing across Smadar's face.

This is Lasker's most radical maneuver: the deliberate intervention across the DMZ that separates documentary filmmaker from subject. But despite venturing into the girls' intimate spaces and moments--the confessional exchange mentioned above is whispered from underneath bed covers--Lasker's perspective remains respectful. As it does in would-be voyeuristic moments; one can well imagine how a showering sequence might have been handled, but on Lasker's watch it becomes a deftly sweet scene of jubilant voices echoing off the tiles and girls struggling to keep their towels in place without losing their grips on their trusty (and ubiquitous) assault rifles.

For all the compliance and competitiveness the military breeds, Seeds of Summer shows gender roles subverted and a community of women actively supporting one another. It is immensely refreshing to see teenage girls cheering on their female officers and themselves rather than, say, guys' sports teams. But a troubling undercurrent of unreflective militarism remains, given that what's garnering applause is a bravura round of missile launching, and that the rousing chant concludes with the line "Let's Co to War!" Just as, despite the radiant pride on Yarden's face as she is singled out by her company commander at the closing awards ceremony--"There's no doubt you're something special," she's lauded--the disquieting subtext holds that what constitutes specialness is a talent and inclination for war.

At a brisk 64 minutes, Seeds of Summer lacks the length necessary to do justice to what it attempts ultimately to depict: the transformation of some of these young women into confident warriors, and others into nervous wrecks. While the "Before" and "After" are all too convincing, too many middle moments go unseen. When we first see Yarden, she's sweating and fighting back tears waiting for her turn on the firing range; by film's end she is beaming uncontrollably as she receives her medal of distinction. But the intermediate footage skips from establishing her as a discipline case to showing her singled out for special duty as the squad's radio operator. Without looking for a pat narrative progression, it is rather confounding given this character non-continuity to discern exactly how Yarden traveled from point A to B.

In contrast, the irrepressible Lotem goes from excitedly gossiping with her chums to being evacuated by stretcher following a panic attack during field training week. We're told such attacks have been occurring regularly, but the scant visible evidence (and what we've come to know is Lotem's penchant for drama) raises a hint of doubt. As do the camera cuts that appear at several intervals and call into question the degree to which their content was naturally occurring. Why would Lasker cut from a medium shot of Yarden looking vaguely tearful to a close-up of her in full flow, rather than maintaining the shot's coherency with a zoom-in? The answer may be as innocent as having missed or fumbled the shot or needing to get the film down to television-friendly length, and certainly there are enough revealing moments captured through long takes to justify giving Lasker the benefit of the doubt.

The film's culminating scene, however, is almost surely staged. Without disclosing its precise content, it involves Lasker attempting to comfort a distressed Smadar, and certainly it provides a fitting--perhaps too fitting--end, by bringing Lasker fully from a position of observation to one of involvement. It feels compromised less because it undermines the film's "authenticity" than because it seems forced. It is also the first moment in the film when the community of women fails as a source of support; chafing at their efforts, Smadar turns to Lasker, who alone seems to understand what she is going through. Staged or not, it is an affecting moment of intimacy, but one that abandons our sense, gauged up to this point, that all these young women are in it together.

Seeds of Summer screened in competition at the 2007 Jerusalem International Film Festival, 2008 Outfest Film Festival, and 2010 Brooklyn International Film Festival, among others. It is available for online viewing through YouTube and other video sharing sites. North American broadcast rights are held by ITVS. For more information, contact Eden Productions, 84 Arlozorov St., Tel Aviv 62647, Israel, Tel: 972 3 527 3403, info@edenpro-ductions.co.il

Notes

(1) See Tania Modleski, "A Rose Is a Rose? Real Women and a Lost War." In The New American Cinema, ed. Jon Lewis (Durham: Duke University Press,

Maria San Filippo is the 2008-2010 Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Cinema and Media Studies at Wellesley College. She holds a Ph.D. in Cinema and Media Studies from UCLA, where she was a Visiting Lecturer in 2007. Her articles and reviews have been published in Cineaste, Film History, Journal of Bisexuality, Quarterly Review of Film & Video, Senses of Cinema, and in the anthology Global Art Cinema (ed. Rosalind A. Galt and Karl Schoonover, Oxford University Press, 2010).
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Author:Filippo, Maria San
Publication:CineAction
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2010
Words:1697
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