“I’m like a soccer coach, like a running coach,” declares Jack Yaakob, fashion designer and trainer of models and beauty queens. “I will place you on the track and then it’s up to you. Let the best woman win.” Jack turns a critical eye on his new students. They will have to change their behavior and their appearances, he warns, in order to succeed. In fact, he says, casting his gaze on one girl: she can lose some weight, he nods, as she smiles with embarrassment and accedes: no question, she will do as he says.
Accepting judgments by others is part of being a model or pageant entrant, of course. But for Duah Fares, the Arab-Israeli teenager at the center of Contestant No. 2, the judgments aren’t always easy to take. The documentary, a television version of the theatrical release Lady Kul el Arab premiering on PBS’ Wide Angle, follows Duah’s pursuit of her dream of being an international beauty queen. Increasingly, she faces tensions between that dream and her identity as an Arab Druze. For Duah, this means, “I am part of a conservative society.”
Initially confident that she can represent that society while also competing (partly a problem because she will need to wear clothes that show her bare arms), Duah tells a pageant judge who asks how she can choose between an overseas modeling contract and a marriage proposal, she smiles, “There is always time for marriage. I will do anything to be successful.”
Frictions emerge when Duah enters not only a local contest but also Miss Israel, a competition that might lead to next steps, like Miss Universe. When she and several friends are among the finalists in the Lady of the Arabs (Lady kul el Arab) pageant, Duah is encouraged by her family and classmates. At work in the kitchen, her mother Dalia barely stays in the close handheld frame: “I didn’t have a chance to develop,” Dalia says, “I never even thought of it. I made do with a home and a family. I gave my dream to my daughter, for her to fulfill.” At the same time, her proud father Marwan, incarcerated during 10 years (for a “nonviolent crime,” the narrator says discreetly), which may explain his insistent support of his daughter: the camera looks on from across the room as he and Duah cuddle on the couch, watching glamorous women sing on TV.
Toward this end, Duah and Jack decide she should also go to Tel Aviv to compete for Miss Israel. For her application, she changes her name to “Angelina” (in honor of Jolie) and ends up among 20 finalists. When the contests’ schedules overlap, she has to make a choice between them, complicated by her belief that the national title will get her closer to Hollywood (the Lady of eth Arabs, by contrast, leads nowhere: “This girl from Haifa who won last year,” Duah asks, “Where did it get her? She was in a video on the internet”).
The film keeps an effective distance from Duah’s increasingly complex quandary, allowing her to speak in close-up, noting as well that it will only get more complex for her younger sister, who likes to mimic her older sister. Duah is pressed to make her decision when she learns she’ll have to pay money to withdraw from one, and also — more disturbingly — that the men in her Druze community think she’s going too far: in Tel Aviv, she would have to appear in a swimsuit phase. “The more public her participation in the Miss Israel pageant,” says the narrator, “the more attention she draws from religious leaders.” That would be leaders (and followers) who believe women need to behave and that honor killings maintain order.
Dalia worries for her safety, as well as threats against the family. “You as a young Druze lady will not wear revealing clothes,” Duah’s mother tells her, “It is unacceptable for us, I’m telling you, I won’t have it.” Duah sees the issue as a generational conflict. “This generation’s problem,” she says of those condemning her, “Is that it’s stuck in this lousy mentality. The elders are the ones talking, you won’t believe how things have changed.” Her mother still sees this as a simple opposition, where right and wrong options are clear. Duah elucidates: “I can’t help but be a part of the younger generation.”
She sees here the most complicated point of her dilemma, her own status as representative and representation. If she can be made a symbol of submission, good for the conservative religious elders. If she can achieve “her dream of paving the way for other Druze women,” as a TV announcer puts it, she might represent something else again: freedom or maybe financial success. That beauty pageants — so often derided elsewhere as means to oppress young women, reducing them to objects on display, perpetuating stereotypes of appearance and ambition — are Duah’s means to her end is no small irony. Mothers watching their daughters parade on stage wear head scarves in a TV studio audience, multiple generations signifying both past and future. That Duah’s end remains unresolved in Contestant No. 2 only underscores the profound shifts she embodies. As Jack says, driving through city streets with tears in his eyes, “I fear for Angelina. She has such a strong personality, standing up for herself.” Such standing, for Duah, may only be her beginning.