Welcome to the Dolls house

Paper Dolls is an affectionate glimpse into a unique Israeli drag world.

FACE TIME Sally Comatoy is one of the complex subjects of Paper Dolls.

FACE TIME Sally Comatoy is one of the complex subjects of Paper Dolls.

News from Israel tends to be grim. And so the new film Paper Dolls, which tenderly chronicles the lives of five gay Tel Aviv men—undocumented Filipino immigrants who are drag queens by night and health aides by day—is a welcome relief.

"Arab-Jewish, Arab-Jewish—we're tired of it," says director Tomer Heymann, whose past documentaries have focused on coming out and the career of Israeli rock star Aviv Gefen. A few years ago, a producer friend said she had another great idea for him and directed the filmmaker to the Paper Dolls—the self-named drag troupe whose members describe themselves as women who are "not real," as one member put it. Heymann was intrigued.

"I was surprised there was something going on in the gay community that I didn't know about," the director admits. "I didn't even understand. Filipinos? Transsexuals? Drag show? Something about this was interesting."

He tracked down the Paper Dolls and befriended them and, though a bit of unavoidable Israeli tragedy creeps in—there were bombings in Tel Aviv twice during the filming—the director mainly keeps his focus on the bonds that the Filipino men form with each other and, more surprisingly, with the elderly Orthodox Jews they care for. He was especially taken with the relationship between the gentle, elfin-faced Sally Comatoy and her octogenarian charge, Chaim Amir (who died before the film's completion).

"For a very short time I got his heart and he became a father to me," recalls Comatoy, now back in the Philippines. Amir knew about his caregiver's life as a Paper Doll and, in one scene, even presents her with a new dress. She says she was happy to have had such moments captured on film. "The movie will serve as a good memory of the way I worked, and who I am as a person," Comatoy says. "Working with Tomer was so great. He is known in Israel and is a good director, and being a part of this movie means that I am important too."

The mutual love and respect between Comatoy and Amir is just one quiet victory in the film. "This movie is a lot about survival," Heymann says, explaining how his subjects are many-layered outcasts. "They are really outsiders in three different circles: In Israel because they're foreigners, among foreigners because they are illegal and among gay people because they are transsexual."

Though the five subjects are all men, they are in various stages of gender transition, and some spend most of their daily lives as women. That was an element of the story that Heymann, a rather butch gay man, found off-putting at first.

"I was the gay guy with stupid things in my mind against these people. We are sometimes homophobic against each other," he admits. "But then slowly, slowly, they became my best friends. So I realized that the movie had to touch on that, and that I was important in the film. It goes much deeper than a director with his subject." Heymann eventually allowed his new friends to do his makeup and put him in drag for the camera. He also invited them to his home to meet his mother, and set the troupe up with an audition to perform at TLV, a major nightclub in Tel Aviv. That led to some of the film's most uncomfortable scenes, as several A-list partyers gave the amateurs a cold and catty reception.

"I made this meeting because I really thought it was going to be great," Heymann explains. "But it gave us the most ugly moment in the film. You shoot and go through this process and you don't always know the result." Another time, Heymann listened as a taxi driver made nasty remarks about his pals.

"I was so ashamed and I felt I wanted to kill him," he recalls. But he included the scene, saying, "It would not be a good movie if I only showed the good things."

Paper Dolls is now playing at Film Forum.