Last week, PBS premiered Contestant No. 2, a documentary about women dreaming of pageant success...and Hollywood stardom. I assumed the film was yet another cautionary tale concerning standards of beauty and female objectification. I was right - and very wrong.
Directed by Ibtisam Mara'ana, Contestant No. 2 begins as a group of young women prepare to enter and compete in the Lady of All the Arabs, a pageant open to Arab-Israeli women of all religions and living in all areas of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. As evidenced from the clip above, the competition has all the hallmarks familiar to followers of Western pageants or beauty-based reality television: The older male mentor; the long hours of practice in comportment; the concerns over weight and figure. But the film takes a turn of sorts when it becomes clear that its primary focus is Duah Fares, a young Druze woman with dreams that go far beyond the purview of her particular Muslim sect - or country - and include a certain international star named Angelina:
Duah is one of seven children; her mom works as a driver for a carpool and is a supportive, somewhat wistful woman ("I made do with a home and children and taking care of my family. I gave my dream to my daughter, for her to fulfill," she says at one point.) Her father, of undetermined occupation, seems to adore her. Once Duah decides to enter the larger, more prestigious Miss Israel pageant, however, that support erodes somewhat, and, outside of her family, all hell slowly begins to break loose: Tensions arise regarding the conventions of her conservative community and the realities of the more revealing competition; the Miss Israel officials tell her she must pick between their pageant and the Lady of All the Arabs, a choice that could cost her family $5,000 in penalties; she takes off for Thailand with the Miss Israel officials, leaving only a note for her parents to find.
And then, this: Tabloid stardom, just like her idol:
Ibtisam Mara'ana can only do so much in the time she is allotted, but she crafts a compelling, discouraging story of a young woman's dreams being managed, manipulated, enabled, and (almost) violently thwarted by the men around her. I won't reveal much more - its worth watching in its entirety - except to say that the name "Angelina" probably won't sound the same way ever again.
Contestant No. 2 [Wide Angle-PBS]