Early in Beneath the Helmet, an Israeli documentary that follows a group of new IDF enlistees, a pack of soldiers sit underneath a palm tree, relaxing in the shade. Their sergeant asks how things are going. “Well, the food sucks,” one says, “so I really miss my mom.”
Beneath the Helmet is steeped in such moments of youthful emotion. The soldiers featured in it jump around to the tunes of Macklemore. They roughhouse. They miss their moms. They are startlingly, strikingly young. For those who live outside of Israel, it can be easy to forget that the arduous task of defending the country rests on the shoulders of teenagers.
At the film’s center are four soldiers in an elite paratrooper unit. Three of them are new to the army, straight out of high school. There is Eilon, an effervescent young man with a penchant for practical jokes; Oren, who left Switzerland to serve in the Israeli army; and Makonen, an Ethiopian immigrant who struggles terribly with basic training because it forces him to leave behind the family that depends on him for financial support. We are also introduced to Coral, a sergeant who once considered evading Israel’s mandatory army service.
But it is Eden, a thoughtful lieutenant, who gives the documentary so much of its emotional heft. At only 20 years old, he is tasked with guiding 42 paratroopers through the rigors of basic training. He is their teacher, their disciplinarian, their friend, and their mentor. He is disarmingly at ease with the possibility of his own death. “I don’t expect you to get stuck and mourn forever,” he tells his parents. “Move forward, and understand that this is the price we have to pay.”
The documentary’s young subjects often reflect Eden’s sense of obligation. They understand the acute importance of their service. “In Switzerland, they don’t really need me,” says Oren. “Israel needs me.” The soldiers are visibly proud on the day of their induction ceremony. They can barely contain their exhilaration when they parachute from a plane for the first time.
But to the filmmakers’ credit, Beneath the Helmet never feels like a mouthpiece for the IDF. The documentary does not shy away from depicting the physical and psychological traumas that temper the soldiers’ idealism. During the first few weeks of the eight-month basic training period, the young soldiers are in good spirits, cracking jokes and goofing off. By day 27, they are gaunt and exhausted. And when they have to trek through the desert carrying 40-odd pounds of gear, the soldiers are downright miserable. “Who wants to fight?” Eilon says. “Who wants to be in a military system? No one. But we need to be in the army, so we’re here.”
Beneath the Helmet was produced by Jerusalem U, an organization working to cultivate a connection between young Jews and Israel. The documentary was recently screened at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, where the filmmakers expressed their hope that the film will provide a more sympathetic depiction of Israeli soldiers than is normally featured in the mainstream media. For those who are willing to watch it, the film offers a gentle, nuanced portrait of the young men—teenagers, really—who fight to defend their country, sometimes because they believe in the cause, and sometimes because they have no choice.