Oy Bay Review of SFJFF’s “Flipping Out”
Posted by Oyster on August 8, 2008
Yoav Shamir’s latest documentary film sketches post-IDF Israelis travelers in India who experience severe psychotic episodes known as Flipping Out. These lost youngsters are brought back to sanity by an unlikely crew: a Chabad rabbi based in Kasol (who himself traveled in India in a drugged haze years prior), an ex-Mossad agent (likened by SFJFF Program Director Nancy Fishman to Santa Claus) hired by Israeli families to track down their children, and an aging Israeli hippie running a Bayit Cham (Warm House, the secular equivalent to Chabad, run by the Israeli government).
After receiving their discharge bonus, early 20something Israelis leave en masse to travel and blow off steam, seeking freedom from the structure and authority of the army. While Shamir accurately portrays the responsibility-free backpacking lifestyle that young Israelis embrace in India, part of the story is missing. Although the film opens with male soldiers destroying undisclosed property, setting a tone that all is not well back home, he only hints at what they are running from through limited flashbacks, contrasting the vibrant colors of the Indian landscape with black and white military footage. However, the very absence of sufficient background about the army is perhaps intentionally representative of the reluctance many Israelis have to discuss these experiences, and the glaring silence symbolizes the very reason for this escapism.
Another weakness in the film is the assumption that flipping out is caused by drugs. After the opening military footage, Shamir shows a group of Israelis taking huge bong and chillum hits as part of a normal morning routine in a picturesque Himalayan cloud forest. While drug abuse is certainly related to the onset of many psychiatric illnesses, automatically blaming these episodes on drugs seems to avoid holding the military accountable for its role. The question is never explicitly asked, why are these kids doing so much drugs? The testimony of 26 year old kibbutznik Eyal Goldstein, shot in eerie nighttime footage with echoes of a nearby all night trance beach party, demonstrates the tensions within the post-army drug-using traveler. He mentions feeling much better and happier in India rather than Israel, away from the pressures of domestic life, but also expresses fear around inheriting his mother’s mental illness as a result of his own ecstasy use. Certainly the causes of flipping out are complex, but it is notable that while Shamir is unwilling to point an explicit finger at Tzahal for its effects on soldiers (let alone its victims on the ‘other side’), the Deputy Prime Minister readily agrees that it is the State of Israel’s responsibility to fund social service programs in India for “our boys and girls,” during an official state visit to the Goa Bayit Cham.
Further, Shamir seems to insinuate that turning to religion is some sort of extension of the flipping out, intimating that religiousness is just another form of psychosis. It is curious that multiple characters emerge from flipping out as ba’alei t’schuvah (literally: masters of the return, a term used to describe people who become ultra-religious, similar to born-again). There is very little coverage of the other services provided to all Jewish travelers, not just stoned Israelis, by Chabadnikim.
In focusing so sharply on this particular experience of Israelis in India, little room is left for the Indian perspective of Israelis. Shamir does not show that India is experiencing a vast profusion of Hebrew signage, locals learning the language, restaurants serving Israeli food (best falafel outside of Israel!), and Chabad, Beit Yehudi (Jewish House, the Bretslav Chasidim equivalent to Chabad), and Bayit Cham spreading across the country like chicken pox. Popular tourist areas are derisively called ‘Little Israel,’ and Israelis carry a reputation of being loud, stoned, unruly, and rude. One guest house owner comments on this reputation, but overall the Indian side is not represented. In one provocative scene, local village workers in Goa hired to dig ditches earnestly ask for Moti, a mentally troubled Israeli who hired them in a manic delusion. The relationship between privileged Israelis and impoverished Indians that depend on their tourism is a tenuous and multifarious one, but Shamir barely hints at it.
The experience of women is also largely ignored in the film, relegated mostly to the Chabad rebbetzin, Bayit Cham wife, and a friend of Moti who is insinuated to be invested in him solely out of sexual interest. A simple mention of statistics showing that more men serve in combat units, and more men than women flip out would have addressed my low-grade feminist outrage at the gender bias. Still, it is not the case that young women are any less motivated to travel—in fact, one woman explains to the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel that she is happier in India because she is away from the bombings, corruption, and tension of Israel.
Although multiple perspectives are excluded from the film, overall Flipping Out effectively conveys the struggles of a generation of Israelis through an even-paced, captivating series of character sketches. With more context and background, the film’s message would be even more compelling.
Jocelyn spent 6 months volunteering and traveling in India in 2007, and chronicled her experiences at jocemberg.blogspot.com. She currently lives in San Francisco and works in the nonprofit sector.