Sharing stories, shattering stereotypes
Filmmaker Amber Fares brings stories to life, sheds light on humanity
By Keri Ferguson
Amber Fares, BA’93, never questioned who she was growing up in Grande Prairie, Alta. She was proudly “100 per cent Canadian and 100 per cent Lebanese,” playing sports and enjoying Arab food prepared by her grandmothers.
“We played a lot of hockey, and we ate a lot of hummus,” Fares said.
But that peaceful coexistence came crumbling down with the events of 9/11. While the terrorist attacks took place on U.S. soil far away, the resulting Islamophobia hit close to home.
“All of a sudden, my family was under scrutiny. There was a kind of ‘othering’ as mundane as people asking me where I was from and what religion I was, to incidences of phone calls to my parents, telling them to go back to where they came from,” Fares said. (Her mother and father were born in southern Saskatchewan to parents arriving in Canada between 1900 and 1919.)
“I thought, ‘If I’m not Canadian, then who is?,’” she said. “My family has been in Canada since the turn of the century. There was never any question about who we were, or need to separate or stand up for this other culture we embodied, as well.”
It marked a turning point. Fares packed her bags, picked up her camera and put down roots in Ramallah, Palestine, for seven years. Set on a path with “one foot in the Arab culture and the other in North American culture,” she’s become an award-winning documentary filmmaker and cinematographer by sharing stories, shattering stereotypes and shedding light on social issues.
“With a place like Palestine, specifically, there’s a lot of clichés in the way it’s presented in the media,” Fares said. “It is very slanted toward the war and the occupation. Very rarely do you get a chance to dig a little bit deeper and show life there from a personal perspective.”
She found her opportunity with her first feature-length documentary, Speed Sisters. Against the backdrop of occupied Palestine, on makeshift tracks across the West Bank and under the watch of Israeli soldiers, Fares takes viewers inside the lives of the first all-women race car team in the Middle East.
Although there’s intrigue in the women racing cars in the desert – supported and cheered on by men – their personal stories are what resonated most with North American and Middle Eastern audiences alike, winning audience choice awards while playing more than 100 film festivals worldwide.
Fares’ Canadian passport afforded her freedom to navigate the military checkpoints in making the film – an advantage not all the drivers shared – but it was her solidarity and Palestinian experience that allowed the women to share their strengths and struggles.
“Because I grew up in Canada, very familiar with Arab culture, it made it easy for me to bond with all the drivers and their families, and with the greater community,” Fares said.
Her ability to connect also helped spotlight the lighter side of Kholoud Al-Faqih, star of The Judge, and first woman appointed to the Middle East’s Shari’a courts. Fares co-produced and was cinematographer for the film, which garnered a 2019 Peabody Award.
“Kholoud is a really an amazing character, and so funny,” Fares said. “But, because she is a judge, she speaks and dresses formally, so it was hard to warm up to her. The challenge was to get through to her great personality.”
Women have played an active and important part of the resistance movement in Palestine for several years, Fares said. “Speed Sisters and The Judge stand on the shoulders of giants, women who have been fighting for the same rights they are.”
A chance conversation about Palestine with Joey Soloway, creator of Transparent, saw Fares brought on as associate producer and cast as a Canadian-Palestinian in a third-season episode of the Emmy Award-winning series.
“(Soloway) really wanted Gaby Hoffmann’s character, Ali, to go to Palestine but wasn’t quite sure what to do there, because nobody in the writers’ room really had that experience. We just got talking and three days later I’m on a first-class flight to L.A., driving onto the Paramount lot, thinking, ‘What’s going on?,’ walking on to sound stages like it was nothing,” she laughed.
“A lot of the Palestinian parts of that episode came from some of my own time there,” Fares continued. “The check-point scene Ali walks through was shot in a warehouse in downtown L.A, using footage from Speed Sisters, where (driver) Marah walks through. We slowed it down and recreated it, hiring Arab and Iranian actors to play Palestinians. It was a surreal moment, being able to use my experience.”
Fares also brought her first-hand knowledge and talents as supervising producer and cinematographer to The Muslim Next Door, the premiere episode of the National Geographic series America Inside Out with Katie Couric, airing in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban.
But her biggest point of pride to date was working on And She Could Be Next, a two-part documentary series recently aired on PBS. The film featured women of colour running for office in the United States in 2018 – Rashida Tlaib in Detroit, as well as Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Veronica Escobar in Texas and Deb Haaland in New Mexico.
“We were the only film crew with Rashida Tlaib from the time she announced she was running, all the way through her campaign until the night she won,” Fares said. “It was a very historic moment. To witness and be part of such a great project – about women of colour, by women of colour – the representation and comradery between everybody was just really fantastic.”
Based in New York for more than a decade, Fares remains rooted as a Canadian, and in her love of hockey.
She started a street hockey league in Ramallah that played every Friday in the parking lot in front of the Canadian representative office. It was all part of a heritage she’s proud to own.
“I was a producer for a friend of mine in Pittsburgh a couple of summers ago and the Penguins were in the Stanley Cup finals. I was talking hockey with everyone I met. My friends said they had never heard somebody talk about hockey so much in their lives.
“It’s funny, in the United States, they love Canadians so much. I use that to my advantage a lot when I’m trying to foster relationships right away with a distributor. I say a few words and play up my being Canadian.”