Last Thursday, “Wedding Doll” by Nitzan Gilady opened the tenth annual Ring Family Israeli Film Festival, telling the emotionally and visually captivating struggle of an intellectually disabled woman, Hagit, who fights against her mental impediments to find independence. To introduce the film and the series, Jeanine Bassinger, the founding chair of the Film Studies department and curator of the Wesleyan Cinema Archives, offered a few notes of guidance on the interests and background of the filmmaker, who is nowhere near as well known in the American film scene as he is in the Israeli.
Gilady has won 13 international film awards and participated in 120 film festivals around the world for his work, which lies almost entirely in documentary cinema, with the exclusion of “Wedding Doll.” While Gilady graduated from the Academy of the Arts’ Circle in the Square Theatre School in New York, his films delve into the heart of Israeli culture and politics, and often occupy the intersection of the two.
Gilady is best known for his documentaries “In Satmar Custody” (2003), “Jerusalem is Proud to Present” (2008), and “It Runs in the Family” (2010). Even though “Wedding Doll,” his first feature film, marks a shift towards fiction in his career, his style of storytelling mirrors his work in the documentary format. In fact, Gilady has been quoted saying that there is no difference, from the stance of a filmmaker, between documentary and fiction.
“Wedding Doll” begins with the main character, Hagit, preemptively turning off her mother’s alarm clock so that she can walk unaccompanied to work. When her mother finds her walking on the side of the road and insists that she get in the car, it becomes clear from Hagit’s annoyance that this has happened before. Thus, Gilady immediately defines the relationship between the two characters that will drive the rest of the narrative: a daughter craving independence and a mother working to protect her. While this back and forth, commonly understood as a teenager’s act of rebellion, isn’t out of the ordinary by any means, what immediately becomes apparent is Hagit’s age. Hagit, 24, is, according to most cultures’ conceptions, too old to be living under the umbrella of her mother’s control, a dynamic that immediately highlights her childish manner and serves as a clue that she has some disability. In fact, Gilady never even reveals what condition she has because it is hardly ever discussed. It is instead portrayed through these scenes of tension.
Hagit lives a sheltered life split between her work at a family-owned toilet paper factory and her dreams of becoming of wedding dress designer. After work each day, she’s whisked away by her mother and transported back home, where she spends the rest of her time making wedding brides out of dolls using extra rolls of toilet paper. In addition to her will for independence, Hagit is defined through her obsession with everything involving weddings, which to her clearly symbolize everything that she lacks: normalcy, love, validation of beauty. Hagit’s fascination with marriage as a path to independence represents a rare take on a custom that’s understood in traditional feminist literature as a kind of submission to patriarchal ownership. Even though Hagit’s desire for independence falls in line with the aims of feminism, she chooses an unorthodox path by which to pursue it, further enforcing her status as an outsider.
Meanwhile, at the factory, Hagit has developed a romantic relationship with the owner’s son, Omari, who she believes will marry her soon. However, even this one glimpse of happiness and hope in Hagit’s life cannot last and is, in reality, more complicated than it appears to her. The son is keeping the relationship secret and mocking her with his friends, while the factory is closing, putting an expiration date on their dysfunctional romance.
Everywhere Hagit goes, people see her as an outsider, despite her efforts to build a normal life. In one of the beginning shots of the film, Hagit steps outside and we hear a voice outside the camera’s frame yelling “weirdo” at her. The visual absence of the harasser creates the feeling that the world itself is insulting her existence. When Hagit interviews for a new job as a seamstress at a wedding rental store, she believes she got the job, but the manager never even bothers to call her back. The film, in a sense, documents the spiraling devolvement of Hagit’s life, so obvious to the audience but completely invisible to Hagit herself, who holds on tighter and tighter to her dream of designing dresses and getting married.
In fact, in what is arguably Hagit’s lowest and most cringe-worthy moment, she believes Omari’s friends’ cruel joke that Omari wants to marry her that night at the factory. After Hagit spends the entire day making a wedding dress out of toilet paper, the friends end up forcing her to get drunk, furthering her humiliation.
We the audience are forced to stand testament to the fact that Hagit’s disability, while allowing her to be eternally hopeful, obfuscates the painful truth. In this regard, the realism taken on by Gilady actually extends beyond the visual documentary style of the film, offering a message tied into the narrative it presents. While the main character can’t see the truth, she is stuck in a medium that’s devoted to capturing the harsh realities of the world.
This dichotomy strikes a chord with one of Bassinger’s opening remarks on how Hagit is recurrently framed in the outer parts of the shot instead of in the center. The camera, just like the outside world, is literally trying to push her out of the frame and reject her. Additionally, much like Hagit’s tendency to hover between real and false, Gilady expertly intertwines fiction as the subject matter of the film with realism as the visual style of the work. This contrast, which should be contradictory, actually reflects the challenge that Hagit faces in deciphering what is real and what isn’t.