THE ARTS 7.24.09
THE ARTS 7.24.09

Tradition and modernity collide in womens documentaries

A beauty pageant is probably the least likely place to find a sympathetic, down-to-earth heroine. But that’s where we find Duah Fares, the curly-haired, bright-eyed beauty at the center of “Lady Kul el-Arab.” The hourlong documentary follows Fares on her path to becoming the first Druze woman to compete in the Miss Israel pageant.

The film is playing in this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, as part of the “Women Shooting Women: Israeli Documentary Filmmakers” program. Also part of the program is “Desert Brides,” a look at Israel’s Bedouin population and its practice of polygamy.

In “Lady Kul el-Arab,” we meet Fares as she is preparing to compete in the small-time Lady of the Arabs beauty pageant, but you can see the wheels of celebrity spinning behind her eye shadow and lip gloss.

Fares wants to make it big — bigger than Lady of the Arabs, which at best, she says, will get her $10,000 and her face on a supermarket poster.

Early on in the film Fares enlists her devoted pageant coach, Jack, to help her gain admission to the far more glamorous Miss Israel pageant, under the stage name of Angelina (as in Jolie).

But there’s a catch.

If Fares becomes Lady of the Arabs, she’ll be ineligible for Miss Israel because of scheduling conflicts (although one wonders if that’s the only reason). But if she participates in Miss Israel, she risks angering the traditional Druze villagers, who disagree with the pageant’s swimsuit portion and think she should stick with the more modest competition.

A scene shown before the opening credits depicts the fallout of Fares’ decision, so it’s no surprise when she fails to show up for the Lady of the Arabs pageant, leaves her parents a note and heads for Tel Aviv.

What happens next, though, is an almost unbelievable series of events.

Duah Fares, a Druze beauty pageant contestant, is the subject of the documentary “Lady Kul el-Arab.” photos/courtesy of the s.f. jewish film festival

Fares embarks on a whirlwind month of travel with the rest of the pageant participants, but she comes home to a very different world. Her family has been excommunicated, her father is in jail and her uncle is trying to kill her.

Now trailed 24/7 by a large security detail, Fares struggles with her next choice: acquiesce to the Druze traditionalists, or follow her dreams to the Miss Israel catwalk?

Directed by Ibtisam Mara’ana, a Palestinian woman, and produced by Barak Heymann, who co-directed six documentaries that played in last year’s S.F. Jewish Film Festival, “Lady Kul el-Arab” has a refreshingly light touch. There are no self-conscious confessional-style interviews — rather, the story organically unfolds to the viewer whenever the characters want to explain it on-camera.

At just 56 minutes, though, the film seems a bit rushed, and many compelling situations end up being mere footnotes — a problem likely exacerbated by Fares’ tight security at the Miss Israel pageant.

But Fares’ story is so intriguing (and her eyes so big) that it’s impossible not to root for her — and even shed a tear or two.

The conflict between traditional values and modern temptations explored in “Lady Kul el-Arab” comes to a head in “Desert Brides,” an examination of the still-prevalent tradition of polygamy in Israel’s Bedouin communities.

The documentary focuses on several women — first wives, second wives, even seventh wives — and their struggles with this ancient tradition. Some have been married for years; others are still girls, too young to marry; a few are about to get married for the first time.

Even ardent feminists will likely find the film patronizing, since it largely consists of seemingly interminable scenes of women sitting around complaining to each other about men and how much they resent polygamy — but usually coming to the conclusion that this is just the way things are.

Likewise, the men sit around comparing women to “spare tires” and talk about how they’d like to bash their wives’ heads against the wall.

In fact, judging by this film, not a single decent man is to be found in all of Rahat, a Bedouin city of around 42,000 in the Negev desert.

“Desert Brides” doesn’t shy away from showing the gory details of Bedouin life, either. Anyone sensitive to depictions of animal slaughter should be on the alert for several graphic scenes in which the community butchers animals in the street, then chops up their carcasses. There is also a shocking background comment about killing Jews like sheep, which some may find offensive.

The best moment in “Desert Brides” comes late in the film, as first wife Rasima describes the day her husband told her he was taking a second wife, and how she planned the wedding — and managed to smile through it all.

But even some of the film’s most likable characters turn out to be duds. Rasima’s husband’s second wife, whose first husband left her when she became pregnant, initially comes across sympathetically — until she viciously denounces the sweet Rasima for being “uneducated.”

You’ll need a flowchart to keep all the relationships straight, and each person is only identified once, leading to some confusion as the 90-minute film plods on.

Mostly, though, “Desert Brides” suffers from being just a bit too boring and oblique. Too much time is spent on non-essential scenes and conversations, and you can’t help but feel that filmmaker Ada Ushpiz would have been better served by only focusing on two or three of the most compelling women, rather than having an endless troupe of characters all repeating the same opinion.

“Lady Kul el-Arab” plays 3:45 p.m. July 30 at the Castro Theatre in S.F., 2 p.m. Aug. 1 at the Roda Theater in Berkeley and 2:30 p.m. Aug. 5 at the Cinearts @ Palo Alto Square.

“Desert Brides” plays 2:15 p.m. July 29 at the Castro Theatre, 4 p.m. Aug. 2 at the Roda Theater and 2 p.m. Aug. 4 at Cinearts. Both films are in Hebrew and Arabic with English subititles. Information: