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by Roy Jacob Westler
Budoco Ltd., A National Film Board of Canada Release, Montreal, CA, 2006
Original in Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles
DVD. 52 mins. 45 secs., color
Sale/DVD: $248.00
Distributor's web site: http://www.nfb.ca

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg


"I'm different. I learn myself. I try and learn from my own experience."
Shadya 2005

As Shadya relates to us in the above epigraph, she is no ordinary Muslim girl - or is she? Nor for that matter perhaps is she your run of the mill Israeli Arab teenager. She was at the time a delightfully precocious and intelligent teenager rebelling against the constraints of tradition while protected and empowered by her all loving father and locked in a struggle against her older brother who hated her for her independent spirit, to put it mildly. Shadya was a world Shokotai karate champion who has proudly worn the Israeli flag. She embodies the penultimate contradiction being a young Muslim Israeli. Expressing her inner conflict, she emotes: "The bottom line is that I am an Arab. Right?" and this, alongside her impossible desire to control her own destiny in a patriarchal culture, provides the underlying tension that animates this important film. Indeed, this all encompassing political narrative will make this a tremendous film for initiating debate amongst students at all levels about women's rights in conservative patriarchal cultures and specifically about the struggles that such girls and women inevitably face - and in most instances, as in this case, with great pathos - succumb.

Certainly, the power of this film lies in how one cannot help but fall in love with Shadya, that is, in terms of coming to care for her - and should it not be said, in the laudable way in which one witnesses how the Israeli government uses sport and culture to recognize and stimulate excellence while attempting to create common ground and good will amongst its citizens. In that context, while the film is also valuable for the window it provides into two Arab Israeli families' worlds, above all, it allows us to share in the intense joy and disappointment of Shadya's victories and defeats. All in all, as a young director, Jacob Westler has very creatively captured her playful youthfulness, all passion and joy, and provided a compelling documentary account that will elicit the deepest sympathy for her predicament. Despite how she must succumb to the power of tradition, by the end of the film, one comes away with a sound respect for how maturely, graciously and quickly she came to accept her role as a wife and mother, indeed with great dignity and serenity.

The political tension begins in South Africa outside the convention center in downtown Durban at the World Shokotai competition in 2005. After her coach explains that they can only wear Israeli symbols when they are under close guard, the Palestinian team enters the scene stridently singing their national anthem: ". . . sacrifice, sacrifice . . . I'll sacrifice myself for eternal return . . . " Inside the facility, seeking common ground, the Israeli coach engages his counterpart in a dialogue about whether the teams could train together. The Palestinian coach declines saying that doing so would imply that they lived together in peace. As the tension escalates, Shadya comments to a Palestinian competitor: "I have not forgotten I'm an Arab Israeli," to which he replies: "You represent Israel. How can you call yourself an Arab?" Accordingly, just as much as this is a film about gender oppression, or alternatively - if you will - upholding traditional Islamic values, it deftly engages the larger macrocosm of the Arab-Israeli conflict, specifically the contradictions of being an Israeli Arab and the growing fundamentalism amongst some of the youth.

In Durban, Shadya was obviously perturbed and frustrated by this encounter, this questioning of the central contradiction of her identity. The mood intensifies from there and it is the charmingly complex manner in which this is developed which makes Shadya a remarkable fusion of a documentary film about the conjunction of sports and politics. It is essentially an exploration of one girl's struggle to assert her identity and follow her dreams, a quest for freedom of expression versus social control that can radically constrains a woman's entire life horizon.

In very short spaces of time, her exuberance is contrasted with her ambivalence towards her fellow citizens and her feelings of identification and sympathy for the Palestinian cause, her subversive desire to excel as an athlete and by the end of the film, the inevitable subjugated role she will have no choice but to accept. The film's constant building of contrasts of emotional qualities and intensities, of the contrast between respect and support for her self-expression and physical mastery versus the forces of pure domination, make this film a highly compelling tragedy from start to finish. However, it is not a tragedy if you believe that a woman's place is pregnant in the kitchen, but rather the victory of tradition and orthodox custom and religious law.

As a 17-year-old girl, Shadya had that irrepressible youthful spirit that loves to shock through provocation. This is nowhere more provocatively expressed then while in her bedroom dancing seductively and refusing to pray, and less in her refusal to hang up the washing to dry or slit doves' throats for dinner. Even more provocatively, in the public context of the Shokotai competition in Durban, after winning, in a fit of exuberance, she snatches up a Palestinian flag and ran into the stands waving and dancing it in celebration. Then, ever the tease, she asked her fellow Israelis if it had bothered them.

Though playful, this is all dangerous especially in her home where her own brother Shadi, a brooding and intense character, acidly hisses in his bitterness and frustration: "Karate is forbidden for girls. I don't like this. It is not allowed . . . . It is forbidden!"

Clearly her father has had to put up with this family conflict for years and he counters: "What is this. Are we living in the 40's? Keep out of this. I am her father. I stand by them and they succeed." But leaving the room, Shadi disrespectfully and aggressively challenges his father and swears darkly that Shadya will not be allowed to continue to violate Islam. Fortunately for all of them, the father has decided it is best for Shadya to get married and leave home for her own sake.

Shadya's husband is an exceedingly warm and powerful young man, someone who knows when to be diplomatic, when to gently but firmly draw the line, and also how to bide his time. For the moment though, despite having told Shadya and her father that he will allow her to continue karate, while telling her brother the opposite, he also appears to eventually have had no choice but to succumb to the overwhelming social pressure, in this case at the insistence of his own father. Shadya, very much in love with her husband, is prepared to accept his decision, and surprisingly quickly assumes the role of a demure and loving housewife. She turns to teaching children karate instead of fighting for herself and by extension Israel in the international arena. Nevertheless, early in the marriage, in an epochal attempt to resist control and continue with her career, Shadya asks her father to take her to a competition where she suffers a dramatically humiliating defeat. The subsequent scene in the car in which her father accepts her fate while she stoically but in deep emotion watches the night pass by, is a powerful turning point in the film as it moves to closure. Of all the scenes in this film, for myself, the one that best endures is the extraordinarily profound and poetic expression of love between a daughter and a father as they let go of their mutual dream, in essence already achieved.

At Shadya's close, as an 18-year-old wife now visibly pregnant, we leave her there wandering in silent contemplation along the gravel road in fields of gold behind her lavish new home. There, lovely, holding her gently swelling belly, her long black hair yet unveiled, we in turn are left with a sense of warm and transcendent peace.



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