Two teenage girls on military duty in Jerusalem find friendship, men and going on the lam are just as important as policing the Arab community in "Close to Home." Highly accessible pic, which mixes humor, tragedy, tenderness and political acumen into a well-observed coming-of-age format, reps a very impressive feature bow by writer-directors Vidi Bilu and Dalia Hager. Pic has theatrical chances beyond festivals, plus should get plenty of mileage on Euro TV.
Film partly draws on the experiences of one of the distaff directors, who was assigned to police patrolling duty during her military service. But aside from script's mass of small details, the movie's special quality is that it deals with issues that arise from Israelis policing a divided city in a way that puts characters first and political grandstanding second.
Smadar (Smadar Sayar), 18, is first seen being watched by her superior, Dubek (Irit Suki), as she minutely goes through an Arab woman's possessions in a border inspection booth. Smadar is clearly as uncomfortable about the whole process, but the film soon signals it's not going to be a regular drama. When another girl refuses to do the job any longer, a girly mutiny takes place that's only quelled when Dubek cracks the whip.
Also uncomfortable about the whole job is Mirit (Naama Schendar), who tries to get her parents (Ami Weinberg, Katia Zimbris) to have her transferred. They refuse, and she ends up paired on street patrol with Smadar, checking the papers of any Palestinian passers-by they care to stop.
Relations between the two girls are initially frosty. Mirit, who squealed on a colleague during the mini-mutiny, is painfully over-conscientious, while Smadar couldn't care less about the job.
Film gets a lot of enjoyable mileage out of the whole teenage squad's solidarity (warning each other by cell phone when Dubek is coming), as well as their hopelessness at doing the job.
At the 40-minute mark, the real world intervenes as a bomb rocks the neighborhood, with tragic results. But instead of turning into a more politicized drama, pic holds to its course, turning the event into the start of the girls' long path to real friendship.
Pic's free-flowing, episodic manner, and refusal to vilify people automatically -- even Dubek is shown to have a soft side -- give it a very Central European flavor. But in its humorous and dramatic ups-and-downs, film is exceptionally well structured, on a par with its tech side.
Even down to supporting roles, there's hardly a weakly drawn character, and by movie's end there's a feeling of having gotten to know everyone involved. Sayar and Schendar show a natural chemistry together, and Suki, in perhaps the hardest role, manages to bring a discreet humor to Dubek that makes it pretty clear where the filmmakers stand on the situation depicted.
Yontan Bar Giora's music supplies occasionally lightness, lensing by Yaron Scharf is good-looking throughout, and Joelle Alexis' editing is trim.
Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Yaron Scharf; editor, Joelle Alexis; music, Yontan Bar Giora; production designer, Avi Fahima; costume designer, Li Alembik; sound (Dolby SR), Itai Elohev, Aviv Aldema; assistant director, Avi Satat. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 9, 2006. Running time: 98 MIN.