NEW YORK — The new year starts with a bang. One of the best films on the festival circuit (since September of 2016!) is finally in North American theaters. While its subject is extremely specific — a community of independent Arab-Israeli women — its message of not-quite-fitting-in speaks to everyone. (Also: “ban men,” but we’ll get to that.)
It’s been a year since “In Between” made international news when the city of Umm-al Fahm issued its somewhat milquetoast fatwa against the film. Quite frankly, this wasn’t too bad for its publicity.
Not that it wouldn’t get attention on its own merits. Written and directed by Maysaloun Hamoud and produced by Shlomi Elkabetz, the pair decided to have twin department heads throughout the crew. This was a movie about existing in two worlds, so why not have two sets of eyes to ensure as much authenticity as possible?
The film intentionally ruffles feathers, but it clearly comes from a genuine place. You can read my glowing review from June. Everything I’d want to say about its artistic excellence is already there. Now I’m eager to introduce Hamoud herself.
We met some weeks ago at the JCC of Manhattan and had a very friendly, if sometimes spirited, conversation. Hamoud is a woman with the title of her film tattooed on her arm in three languages. While warm, witty and clearly smart, this is also someone who has long ago stopped apologizing for herself. What you’ll see below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
You’ve been traveling with this film for a long time. Do you feel differently about the movie now?
It’s kind of a campaign tour. But a community of “In Betweeners” have heard about the movie. I worked hard but it was worth it.
Do you think interacting with audiences will have an effect on your next project? I know you plan to make a “thematic” trilogy.
No. If I think about what the audience needs, it may devolve into commercialism. If you believe in your own truth and make art through that, it gets to the heart of the audience.
International festivals and Cannes (which awarded you a development prize) and the JCC are eager to support this movie because, let’s face it, how often do we see something new?
[Jokingly] I’m fresh, fresh!!
How does it make you feel to be labeled “the feminist Palestinian filmmaker from Israel with characters that are Christian and characters that are gay” – you’ve got a identity checklist like no other.
It’s the reality that I live, captured in a cinematic way. This generation is all over — even here in New York, in Berlin, in the Arab capitals — it’s just that we are invisible. We have never had a movie that represented us. There’s no reference for the subculture. I got the momentum at the right time.
My movie is low budget, but there was great loyalty from the actors, and also the crew. So many were from this world, and it took a lot of courage. We worked to make something new and strong, but also “good.” Not just an agenda. I hate those movies that are just agendas.
Yeah, it’s tough, because they can be boring, but you feel guilty for saying it’s boring because they are important.
Yes, you get bogged down in the political talk.
Well, I do want to talk about the politics of your movie a little bit.
Ohhhh. Do we reeeeeeeeealy?
We do. A little. Because if there is a thesis in your movie, I think, it is “don’t label people, let people be individuals.”
Well, not just that, but women’s solidarity and sisterhood. This is the essence of the movie. I think it’s the time for change. The political side of the movie is feminism. If you say “I want to change who is in power,” this is political. If I say “I want a world ruled by women,” it will for sure be a better world.
I don’t disagree. Seriously. Although … you can still point to some women in power and say they weren’t so perfect. History doesn’t look too kindly on, say, Margaret Thatcher these days.
Yeah, sure … but among her, how many men?
Okay, fair. But to my original point, your film, to me, struck a chord about individualism. Not treating someone as a statement of a political side. And yet you present this film, and people come to you as if you were a messenger. A bit of a paradox.
Yes, it is weird. But a phenomenon happens when we show the movie. People perceive an intimacy with me, even though we don’t know one another. They think they know how I think. So audiences feel they can share intimate stories as if we are sisters, even though we’ve never met. I am awed by this.
When the film ends and people talk to one another, they are so glad to find someone who shares their same ideas and feelings. It has created something of a base. So I consider this as an adventure. I have formed close friendships from people in my audience. This is very rare. Some filmmakers they make a film, they think “I’ve done my job.” But that hasn’t been my experience.
I believe it is part of a wave. Not just Palestinian and Israeli, but Tunisian, Moroccan, Lebanese and other women directors. And some men, too, who are aware of anti-patriarchal interests.
Some examples: the Tunisian film “Hedi” and Leyla Bouzid’s “As I Open My Eyes.”
But also the Egyptian who made “Clash,” Mohamed Diab. What’s important is that this year many of the Arab countries are sending films from this wave as their Oscar submission. From Iraq, from Syria, Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult” from Lebanon.
And many of these films are critical of their governments.
Which is a little surprising.
Why? All cinematic waves have common elements. This wave, of which I am part now, we deal with a realistic cinema that talks about the taboos. Interior criticism, to make our society improve.
Right, which is why it surprises me that the governments are supporting these films.
No! They don’t!
Well, the cultural ministries are, if they are submitting them for the Academy Awards, no?
Welllllll, it’s not really like that. First of all, a movie like “Clash,” [set entirely in a police van] debuted at Cannes and played at many of the important festivals. But it could not play at the Cairo Festival. See? It’s always controversial. The system isn’t proud of it, necessarily.
Gotcha. Well, by and large, the Israeli government is supportive of your film, right?
Yes, well, of course! They want to feel good with themselves! “Yes, yes, we let her do that movie.” But they always try to cover the criticism among the Israelis inside the movie. Even if it is the background and not the main issue.
Yes, there is very little in your film that is explicitly critical of Israel, because it feels like it is a given. Obviously these characters aren’t too keen on Israel, so why bother talking about it. But I suppose that since it isn’t on the surface, the government isn’t too upset.
Yes. “We can be okay with the feminist part.”
And the bulk of the conflict in your film is against the Patriarchal system in the Palestinian communities.
But not just that – the audience from “both sides,” even the Israelis, even the Ashkenazis see themselves, too. They see their society. I showed this in Latin America, the Far East, Europe, everyone can find themselves.
There’s a very interesting scene at the beginning of the movie. The two friends are shopping and the shopkeeper gives them a dirty look.
This is codified to read as anti-Palestinian prejudice.
Right. You are never quite welcomed.
You can watch this scene, and chuckle at the two leads, who are very lovable, but they are being kinda noisy in the shop.
Nooooo. No way. If they were talking Hebrew, no one would give them that look.
Well, maybe. Maybe. And to someone who doesn’t know Arabic from Hebrew.
Okay, sure, I took that risk. But when you see movies by Emir Kusturica or films from Hungary, they sometimes have specific cultural moments that not everyone understands. But I took the risk because my priority, I’m sorry to say to you, are my people.
So this scene, this is a criticism from my daily life. I have been there.
The American equivalent is two black women come into a shop and the white owner giving them a look.
Exactly. You have that.
But you can mull it over — “are these specific people being noisy and disruptive?”
This could be, or you could be covering up for racists.
There is a very upsetting scene in a restaurant kitchen, where the boss yells at them not to speak Arabic because it disturbs the customers. As an American, this isn’t something I have thought about too much.
Okay, you have made my day. I am so glad you told me this. This was a big controversy with the coffee shop Aroma.
But I think this is an attitude that could potentially change, no? Am I too naive? That it would become taboo? Like, “you told an Arab not to speak Arabic, that’s really rude.”
But it isn’t rude, it’s racist!
Well, yes, but not a violent act.
We want it changed. I have a hope it will change. If I didn’t, I don’t know how I could live my life. We all want systematic racism to go away and we’ll be equal to Jewish citizens. This is our aim. This is the struggle and my movie is part of the struggle, just in an artistic way. But, hey, as long as the Israeli government brings more racist laws in the Knesset, which trickles down to daily life? It won’t change unless the majority changes.
Listen, you have that here in the United States, too.
But you have to understand: you have Palestinian-Israeli citizens like me. You have Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority. That’s a different system; that’s occupation. We have discrimination and racism, but not like they do. I can move and work and not be a slave. That’s why my film is about the people we never talk about in the conflict.
You showed the film here the other day and it got spirited.
It was a catfight!
A member of the Knesset, Merav Michaeli, she was, she was very… [trails off, smiles.] She is supposed to be the image of the left Zionist feminist agenda. [Shrugs.]
Theoretically an ally of yours.
Yes, and everyone was excited that we would be together. But, surprise! It went in a different direction when she tried to bring her own politics above me and the movie.
Oh, so she was criticizing you a little bit?
Wellllllll, she said things that if an American liberal said them, it would be a big mess. For example, she said, “my prime minister said, and I agree with him, that as a Palestinian you have good conditions in Israel compared to elsewhere in the Arab world.”
Now, if an American liberal said this to an African American? [Brushes hands.] And it’s the exact same thing.
Basically, “go back to Africa.”
Exactly. And how is this relevant to the film? It’s not at all connected to what we were supposed to talk about, but it was “poor her,” that she brought this up.
You didn’t just let it slide.
You said something back.
[Makes a “look at me” gesture] Uhhhhh.
So what did you say?
I said, “I don’t think, as human beings, we need to compare bad conditions for basic elementary needs.”
“You can be angry over someone who is starving to death in Syria, but you can also be angry if someone is being subtly disrespected in a Tel Aviv shop, and most adults can distinguish between the two levels.”
She understood it exactly, but still…
Let’s talk about the music in the movie.
Oh, please put the link to the mixtape up.
Done. Now, also, the wardrobe. Leila is one of the best dressed women I’ve seen in a long time. How much of that is your stamp?
What, you can’t tell?!!?
“In Between” (“Bar Bahar”) is in theaters January 5th. Get ready for the second part of Hamoud’s trilogy in the next year or so, she isn’t going anywhere.