Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
ISRAEL: Sponsored by a Christian evangelist organization, each year female survivors of the Holocaust compete in a unique beauty contest.

Beauty pageants have become increasingly contentious over the decades for their objectification of women and narrow beauty standards. But, what to make of a beauty pageant that adds personal suffering and resilience to the judgment yardsticks? The Miss Holocaust Survivor Beauty Pageant has been taking place for several years now in the Israeli city of Haifa and features elderly contestants who made it out the other side of the Shoah, the genocide in which Nazi Germany and its collaborators killed six million Jews between 1941 and 1945. It aims to focus on «not their measurements but their stories,» says one of the organisers in The Pageant, Turkish-Jewish director Eytan Ipeker’s look inside the event, which premiered in the online edition of Nyon’s Visions du Réel festival. «It’s not just a beauty pageant, it’s about their inner world, how they survived and remain strong,» she says. But the combination of catwalks and hairstylists with the recounting of trauma has inevitably been highly controversial, with many deeming the packaging of the showcase macabre and exploitative, especially given the politicisation of the pageant as propaganda for the nation’s right-wing leadership. Also, should a history of persecution ever be turned into something competitive?

Of course, it’s a thorny, multi-layered, and visually striking subject that seems readymade for a critically minded documentary treatment, so it’s no surprise this is not the first we’ve seen on it. Polish director Michalina Musielak’s Miss Holocaust (2017) had a high-profile run on the festival shorts circuit several years ago. The Pageant, however, is able to use its feature-length to raise more of the troubling psychological aspects of the event, in a non-conclusive, humbly observational manner that never presumes to condemn the choices of its subjects.

Backgrounds

To enter the contest, survivors must provide their background stories, so the ones most likely to impress the audience can be noted. A Romanian hopeful, who spent four years in a concentration camp, sets hers out. After her family fled to Transnistria, the parents died of paratyphoid and the children had to fend for themselves, eating leftovers of food fed to pigs. Sensing the dehumanisation implicit in such details, which was a systematic weapon of the Holocaust against Jewish life and culture, it’s clear that a pageant that enables women to dress up and have their beauty admired, regardless of age, may have a role to play in honouring the humanity within these women and their right to the glamour, desire, and pampering that had been denied them (a former Miss Israel contestant teaches the women what she knows).

what to make of a beauty pageant that adds personal suffering and resilience to the judgment yardsticks?

There is probably no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of whether contestants telling of their experiences is more a healing act of cathartic release or a retraumatising ordeal. «If you want me to tell my story now I need to prepare myself,» warns one potential participant, agreeing to do it only later by phone, and showing how emotionally tough it is for survivors to revisit these moments. In the pageant itself, the syrupy songs about never giving up that the contestants sing together feel awkward in their schmaltz, and the reduction of stories to a handful of sentences by presenters feels problematically tokenising, especially as presenters are not above interrupting emotional moments to greet political figures or celebrities (the prime minister’s wife Sara Netanyahu, at one point.) And what of those who don’t win? Might this rivalry applied to experiences that cannot be compared just continue a process of invalidation in another mode, triggering a new sense of inadequacy that even one’s pain is not enough? «Wow, she was at Auschwitz, says one pageant attendee, attuned to such hierarchies, as she peruses a glossy programme. We hear how a woman who had been raped by Germans at thirteen is dead set on winning the pageant, considering it would be like an answer for what she had endured. Competitiveness and resentment already exist among the residents of Haifa’s Home for Holocaust Survivors, where former camp inmates have been arguing with someone who subsisted alone in a forest about who had it worse. Having survived means not only solidarity but finding channels for one’s repressed emotions.

The Pageant-Miss Holocaust Survivor-post1
The Pageant, a film by Eytan Ipeker

Pomp

Giving perhaps most pause of all is the heavy-handed political messaging through the night, which underlines the pageant as a soft-power propaganda tool for the Israeli government’s nationalist agenda. It’s supported by the International Christian Embassy, an evangelical organisation, and is a means to fundraise for their retirement home. These evangelicals claim to “love Israel,» and it is not lost on us that this includes their claim on holy sites such as the Temple Mount, against Islam. In an example of exploitative missionary zeal, the organisation sees something new to crow about, in its announcement that it influenced the very poor in Tanzania to donate money to bring to the Holocaust survivors — rather than for any project toward local sustainability. The contestants seem fairly unphased by all this pomp as if they’ve seen it all already, and then some. Politics come and go in violent storms; the spirit lives on.

Thank you for reading. Articles are free to read, but could you please consider a subscription? For 9 euro, you will support us, get access to all our online and future printed magazines – and get your own profile page (director, producer, festival …) to connected articles. Also remember you can follow us on Facebook or with our newsletter.