Faring Well

Female racing car drivers in the West Bank. Women of colour running for political office in the US. The first female Sharia judge. Award-winning director and cinematographer Amber Fares is interested in diverse stories that give volume to, and develop understanding of, lesser heard voices. Her feature-length directorial debut, 'Speed Sisters' (2015), has played at over 70 film festivals around the world, picking up multiple audience and jury awards, and 'The Judge' (2018), on which she was cinematographer and co-producer, has just won a Peabody Award (the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for broadcasting and documentaries). Thanks to her connections with one of our League of Strangers members, we carved out some time for quick chat from her home in Brooklyn...

By: Helen Gilchrist,   7 minutes

"My background is Middle Eastern; my grandparents came from Lebanon.

The issue of Palestine had always been quite important to me, and had always been in the back of my mind in looking for ways to be able to tell stories that could bridge the gap between what was happening in North America and around the world. I started getting into filmmaking not long after 9/11. That really switched the score for many people who came from Middle Eastern descent in Canada and the United States.


Amber Fares portrait


I came across the women race car drivers when I was living in Ramallah.

I was invited to a race in Bethlehem, which was on top of a hill at Arafat’s old helicopter landing pad, and they were there. I thought that it was very unexpected and wanted to know more. First of all, a racing event in the West Bank is surprising – with all of the road blocks and restrictions, the fact that they were even racing cars was quite a surprise. Then on top of that, the fact that there were these women who were racing amongst the men, and it was just really normal. The girls themselves come from very different and diverse backgrounds; they weren’t friends before, but came together through racing. The head of the racing federation had always been very supportive of women driving, and they were very much a part of the racing community.


Race in Jericho: image by Tanya Habjouqa

I’ve recently been shooting on a series called 'And She Could Be Next', which is about women of colour and how they’re changing politics in the United States.

I guess I do tend to end up doing a lot of films – not all of them, but a lot of them – that end up having something to do with being Arab. I think that’s just a reflection of the time right now and people being a little bit more conscientious of who’s telling that story, and looking for representation behind the camera. I’ve been involved in a lot of projects in the United States that include those elements. But I’ve also shot at Standing Rock [a native American reservation in North Dakota and South Dakota, US] and other projects that don’t necessarily involve people from the Middle East.

I think it’s very important that we portray Muslims in a way that isn’t one dimensional.

There’s a tendency towards that; it’s either the terrorists – we’re very used to that depiction – or a Muslim woman wearing a Hijab who comes from an immigrant family. And I think one of the things that’s being lost is more complex characters. My family have been in Canada since the turn of the 20th century. The hope is that it’s not presented as such otherness; to show how it’s part of the fabric of this country.

There were some Muslims and Arabs – even within in my family – that were for Trump.

It’s not a homogenous group of people, and yet we’ll constantly be asked to speak for each other in that sort of way. So I think for me, bringing out some of the complexities of it more, is really important.

I got to know judge Kholoud Al-Faqih [from the film, 'The Judge'] quite well. We spent a lot of time with her and her family.

Because I’d lived in Palestine for seven years before I shot that film, it was nice for her to have somebody who was familiar with the culture and the place.


Judge Kholoud Al-Faqih

Judge Kholoud Al-Faqih, ‘The Judge’ (2018)

Some of the main challenges were around access, and being able to shoot in the courtroom without disrupting everything that was going on.

We used GoPros, which worked really well with that. And depending on what the case was, we’d approach individual people and see if we could get their permission for us to film. So there were a lot of days just hanging out in the courtroom.

From a personal perspective, the challenge was capturing Kholoud’s real personality.

She is a judge and she’s very formal; she was very formal in the way that she dressed and she was also very formal in the way that she talked and approached people. So for me it was about really getting to see her personality; she’s very funny, and light-hearted. So being able to get past the veneer of this official judge and really see her in her everyday life; the person that she is as opposed to just her profession. She had kids and having those kids around was amazing, she just lightened – and it was an opportunity to see her as a mother. So we spent a lot of time getting to know her, and having her comfortable around us and the camera, and the kids too. But that’s with almost every documentary film – in order to get the feel on camera to be really intimate, it does require that. It’s about the relationship building behind the scenes. It’s not always an easy thing to do.


Kholoud Al-Faqih, the first female judge in Palestine

Kholoud Al-Faqih, the first female judge in Palestine, in the documentary film ‘The Judge’. Photo courtesy of The Judge

It’s not an easy thing for people to have their life be an open book to a documentary crew.

When you think about it, it’s a very interesting relationship in that, I guess as a filmmaker, you’re always making those decisions as to what you’re filming or what you’re not filming and how much you want to. You don’t want to have your subject be in any type of danger after the film is done.

You set out every day with a plan, but you never know where it’s going to take you. Especially with 'Speed Sisters'; for example, the day that Betty got shot with a tear gas canister.

Obviously we didn’t know that was going to happen. I guess with documentary film you do have to plan, but you also have to be flexible enough that that plan may not happen. And that also comes with really knowing your characters and really understanding what makes them tick and being prepared for just how they might react to things.

The difference between a scripted film and a documentary is that with the scripted film, you script everything out beforehand, but with a documentary you’re discovering those characters as you’re filming.

And then the script really comes in the edit. You already have this footage, you already know what’s just happened, and it’s like, how do you create that script based on the events that you’ve known?

Working for network TV, for example 'America Inside Out', is very different. That was much more planned, and it’s very different when you’re working with a TV host.

So it required a lot of research and pre-interviews beforehand, and then what you go in and shoot is in very specific environments. You have researchers, you have archivists, you have executive producers, two cameramen, full lighting gear and all of that. Whereas filming an independent documentary film, a lot of the time you’re filming with very small crews and really living with your subjects and getting involved in their life. Network projects can be a little bit more at an arm’s length. There are much bigger crews, way bigger budgets. But it was really interesting for me. I like to have a balance of both.

With 'Transparent', I came in for a very specific role; I was an associate producer, consulting on the story of Palestine [in Season 4].

The story of that season was that the family went to Israel and then one of the characters went off into Palestine. It was really fun for me, because in doing that I was really exposed to all elements of that process. I was in the writing room, I was working with the props people, we recreated the Qalandia checkpoint in Downtown LA and used some of the footage that I had from Speed Sisters, from when Mara was walking through that checkpoint, and we slowed it down and we based it off of that. We recreated the hills of Palestine just outside of LA. Working with costume and location scouting and all of it, was really amazing. I also shadowed the director on those scenes, so it was a very interesting look at how the narrative series and projects are made.


'Transparent' Season 4. Image: Amazon

‘Transparent’ Season 4. Image: Amazon

In the industry you’re starting to see that more, bringing in people to help with that sort of authenticity.

I was able to give pointers on little things like the way that the taxi cabs looked, the cars that people drove, even the beer that was on the table was a beer from Palestine called Taybeh beer that’s brewed in the West Bank. Just to have people who know, they’re looking for those nuances in really specific things that help to set the location, so it doesn’t feel like it’s forced.

I was also helping with the casting. They wanted to cast for the little restaurant scene; they were showing me everybody and I was just like, ‘I’m sure we can find some Arab actors – every single person here is East Indian or East Asian!’

I started to realise there was a lack of knowledge. But that was the great thing about them, they got me on for that purpose, and really helped look for Arab actors – they brought in 200 extras for it. It was really funny, we were in a warehouse in Downton LA and there were all these people walking around with Palestinian clothes on, and Israeli soldiers, and this mix of people and we’re all eating lunch together, it just looked kinda funny in Downtown LA.

This year I received a Sundance Momentum Fellowship, which is basically a year of guidance and support from Sundance. So I’ve been working on moving toward more narrative.

I’m currently creating a series with two other Arab American filmmaker friends of mine as well as toying about introducing a feature adaptation of Speed Sisters, a scripted version of that documentary.



Watch the Speed Sisters trailer:

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