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"Polygamy in Bedouin society is a subject that is hard to penetrate, there is a sense that there is a social taboo around it," says Ada Ushpiz, the director of "Brides of the Desert," which last week won first prize in the Israeli competition at the DocAviv Festival. "It's because polygamy is a social system that is considered legitimate in this society, but at the same time there is also high awareness in that society of the way the system is perceived on the outside."

The difficulty in gaining access to this subject, and Ushpiz's success in getting close to Bedouin women and listening to the thoughts and feelings the polygamy system evokes in them, were among the bases for the DocAviv judges' decision to award the film first prize. "The documentary film has the power to take us to worlds that we wouldn't reach in another way. 'Brides of the Desert' takes us deep inside a closed society and also into an emotional space that is rarely revealed," is how the panel of the festival's Israeli competition explained their choice, and they also praised the style in which they film was photographed.

Miriam al-Kawader, one of the heroines of "Brides of the Desert," is a wedding photographer who lives in one of the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev. Because of her job, she repeatedly encounters polygamy, the same social system that troubles the peace of mind of many women in Bedouin society. Al-Kawader often photographs weddings in which a married man links his life to that of a second wife, and also weddings in which the happy bride, if she is her husband's first wife, is already worrying about the moment when her husband will inform her that he wants to take another spouse. Al-Kawader acknowledges that she herself lives in fear of the moment when she discovers that her husband is about to take a second wife.

In Western eyes, polygamy is perceived as a cruel and failed social system. But without discounting the problems it entails, Ushpiz seeks in her film to highlight also the commonality between it and other social systems, Western ones. "The condescending attitude of other systems toward polygamy is not justified in my eyes," she says. "In other social systems, the elements of polygamy simply find expression in other ways. While working on the film, I felt as if I was looking in a mirror, one that shows relationships, structures and behaviors that exist in other societies, including Western ones. Among us, for example, we have found all kinds of social and familial 'solutions,' such as a mistress, lover, betrayal, and abandonment. There were Bedouin women who told me 'What, is being a mistress, like it happens among you, better? I, at least my husband takes me to see his mother on the holidays.'"

Pushed into polygamy

All of the dynamics of the power plays between men and women, Ushpiz argues, are pushed into polygamy. "If the Bedouin man wants a mistress or prostitute for himself, he takes another wife. In Bedouin society, many times women marry at a very young age, and that is how fantasies are realized. So all kinds of things are realized by the polygamous system, and all of the dynamics of life that you see around you, will also be uncovered in the polygamous world. Other systems have very severe subjugation, even if it occasionally seems to be more refined. It is a little like science fiction, when you encounter a world where the codes are foreign, and the external reality is foreign, but then you identify the most basic universal lines."

Ushpiz makes clear that today, in contrast to the past, there are already a lot of feminist Bedouin women who openly oppose the system, and still it is is legitimate in their society. Thus, for example, the phrase Bedouin use to refer to the case of a man who has married another woman, in addition to his first wife - "got married on her" - is very common. "A woman who 'got married on' remains alone, but everyone cooperates with the system, even her parents and her children. One of the women in the film says that she prefers that her husband's wedding to his second wife take place in her house, 'because otherwise, they'll say I'm angry that he's getting married.' So even the victims of this system, even if they are hurt and pained, cooperate with it, because of the social circumstances," says Ushpiz. Al-Kawader and the two other heroines of "Brides of the Desert," Miriam Nimr and Alia al-Abd are all independent, strong women. "I was interested not in choosing the classic stereotype of this world, but, rather, strong women, whose clashes intensify the personal problem of all the women in this world," says Ushpiz. And yet, even the strong women who have harsh criticism for the polygamous system are drawn into it. Al-Kawader cannot prevent her husband from taking another wife, if he wishes to do so, whereas Nimr and al-Abd decide in the film to marry men who are already married.

Polygamy is not legal in Israel, but Bedouin society found a simple solution for this problem: A Bedouin man married to two wives only registers the first union at the Interior Ministry, clarifies Ushpiz. Nonetheless, by Islamic law, he is considered married to two wives.

Things that words can't say

Ushpiz was for many years a journalist at Haaretz, and left her position around a year ago. But she has been making documentary films for over 20 years. Among others, they have included "Not Like Sheep to the Slaughter" ("Lo Katzon Latevah," 1990), which told the story of the revolt in the Bialystok ghetto; "Detained" ("Asurot," 2001, together with Anat Even), which followed three Palestinian widows who lived in a house in Hebron whose roof was taken over by IDF soldiers; and "Blood Engagement" ("Erusei Damim," 2004), which took a lot at what is going on among Ethiopians by following the stories of two men, one of whom murdered his wife, the other of whom failed at doing the same.

The idea for "Brides of the Desert" was born thanks to a report on unrecognized villages in the Negev that Ushpiz prepared for the paper. "Then I met al-Kawader, a wedding photographer, and when you live there, it's one of the subjects that immediately crop up, because everything revolves around weddings," she says. Even her other films were created in the wake of articles written for the paper, she acknowledges. In the case of 'Blood Engagement,' for example, "I wrote at the time about a murder in Haifa, and after a few years, in this film, I went back to the murderer from that article, who was already in jail. Maybe by leaving the paper, I bit the hand that fed me, because many of the stimuli for films came from the articles I wrote," she laughs.

"Almost every article, if I were to have made a film about it, would have taken on additional dimensions," says Ushpiz, "but that's because, among other things, journalistic pieces have a limited canvas. But I think that in my articles there was also a film angle, many times I took off from situations that could have served as the basis for a screenplay. There was hardly any topic I dealt with that I wasn't tempted to do a film on. There are things that words can't say, as compared with a camera, which can grasp a person's look, feelings. Even though there are things that journalism can do that film can't, a documentary film absorbs a reality that many times I didn't find a parallel for in verbal description. It has tremendous power, to absorb a reality on a level that no other medium can succeed in doing."