‘Paper Dolls’ Explores Struggles of Migrant Workers

This scene depicts the transition from migrant worker to drag queen.

This scene depicts the transition from migrant worker to drag queen.

Students gathered in Golden Auditorium Friday, November 4 for another installment of Colgate’s Friday Night Film Series. This week’s selection was award-winning documentary “Paper Dolls,” a 2006 film by Israeli director Tomer Heymann. The film followed a group of ​ transgender migrant workers from the Philippines, who were working illegally in Israel as caregivers for the elderly. The workers reside in Israel because they can make more money there to send back to their families in the Philippines. Additionally, most of the workers have been cast out by the very families they are trying to support, due to their differences in sexual and gender preferences. In their spare time, they perform as a drag group: the Paper Dolls. The film was shot over the course of five years and offers a close look into the lives of these marginalized individuals, as they struggle to find reciprocated love in a world that constantly shuns them.

Offering an introduction to the film, Professor Ani Maitra surprised the audience with the information that one of the protagonists in the film, Sally, was later found dead in a mall, having had her head beaten in. Acknowledging that the film could not predict Sally’s violent death, he encouraged the audience to look for forms of violence against the gender non-conforming body in the film that may function as foreshadowing.

Few elderly employers depicted in the film were accepting of the transgender workers, so most of the workers were forced to present themselves as male in order to avoid discrimination and keep their jobs. Sally enjoyed a particularly touching relationship with her employer Haim, who accepted her exactly as she was. The two formed a real friendship, and Sally was able to experience a real level of freedom in Israel. Other members of the Paper Dolls were not as lucky and were fired by their employers on a whim after dedicating years of service. Once fired, the Filipino workers became illegal overnight, and were deported to the Philippines. Thus, these workers could never experience true security working in Israel, as they were under a constant threat of deportation and the mercy of their employers.

One of the most touching themes throughout the entire film was the level of care and compassion that these workers gave to the elderly. Sally described how her own mother was very sick, and yet she could not take care of her because she took care of other people for a living. Even on Christmas, Sally was completely devoted to Haim, taking him to the hospital.

“The thing that moved me the most was the level of passion and devotion with which [the Paper Dolls] worked to care for these elderly men,” sophomore Hayley Pearson said. “It came through in these scenes so clearly. That is not a job that everyone can do. I really could not believe that such kind, giving people could be persecuted and targeted in such a violent way, or dismissed after years of service.”

The violence the audience was told to look for at the beginning stood out starkly in a bombing scene. The bombs, which were said to occur almost weekly, were specifically targeting foreign workers. There were other countless scenes in which the Paper Dolls were asked bluntly if they were a man or a woman, followed by taunting and discriminatory behavior. The workers thus faced a double persecution, for both their sexual and gender preferences as well as their foreign status. 

“I thought it was so amazing how powerful and strong the Paper Dolls were to stay true to themselves even though they faced such a constant threat, whether in the form of violence or deportation,” sophomore Tess Nogles said. “Through all of that, they were still so caring and loving to these old people, many of whom would not accept them if they knew who they really were. In this way, they maintained their faith in humanity.”

A real symbol of the promise of humanity and perhaps future acceptance in Israel was Haim, who was able to come to accept a relationship unlike anything he had experienced in his entire 90 years, with open arms and love.