NEW YORK — The cinema cognoscenti got a peek at something special at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. While Maysaloun Hamoud’s “In Between” (“Bar Bahar”) has already made headlines in the Middle East, even inspiring the first Palestinian fatwa in decades, its US release this November promises to inspire the essay engines of the political-entertainment complex. It will offer a clothesline to pin opinions on Muslim, Christian Arab, lesbian and secular identity in the State of Israel, and shade it with some commentary on BDS, too.
Additionally, film critics from Park Slope to Los Feliz always looking for a Next Big Thing will have a new director to champion. Arguably discouraging for a woman whose work stresses individuality, many will want to put their label on Maysaloun Hamoud, a liberal Palestinian woman working in Israel. Hopefully the urge to categorize her won’t get her down, as above all else she is one thing: abundantly talented.
Hamoud was born in Budapest in 1982, raised in Deir Hanna in Israel’s Lower Galilee, and worked with established Jewish filmmaker Shlomi Elkabetz as her producer on her first feature. “In Between” kicked off its event screening (a 15th anniversary party for its American distributor Film Movement) with a video message. Hamoud didn’t need to say much, just blow us a kiss from Tel Aviv. Then the lights dimmed, MG Saad’s hard-driving Arabic techno kicked-in and the movie that no one has quite seen the likes of before began.
In broad strokes, “In Between” isn’t too different from a hundred other indie dramas. Three young women are trying to figure out what the hell to do with their lives. The magic comes with the specificity of the setting, its look and the outstanding performances.
Front and center is Laila (Mouna Hawa) an explosion of attitude, spirit and hair. She likes to smoke, she likes to party, she likes to dance and she does not like anyone, especially men, telling her how to behave. Around 20 minutes in it is revealed that she isn’t just a nighttime sybarite but a respectable defense lawyer. She even ties her hair back in court and rebuffs advances from Jewish colleagues. (“Let’s keep our flirtation fun.”)
She shares an apartment in Tel Aviv’s Yemenite Quarter with Salma (Sana Jammelieh), a laid-back DJ whose eyes are always at half-mast. In time we’ll learn she is a Christian, we’ll also learn she is gay and then we’ll discover her conservative parents have arranged a marriage for her.
The new roommate is Nour (Shaden Kanboura), a conservative girl from Umm al-Fahm who is studying computer science at Tel Aviv University. She is engaged to a religious man who works at a vaguely defined charity organization and just can’t wait for her to finish school. Not so she can work, but so they can get married and she can start pumping out children. At first the other girls kind of dismiss her as kind of square, but over time they will bond over a common enemy: the suffocating and violent patriarchy that refuses to give these women an inch.
“Over time” is the key phrase to Hamoud’s style. It is unhurried, more reminiscent of 1960s Italian classics like Antonioni’s “La Notte” or Pietrangeli’s “I Knew Her Well” than the typical sitcom the shared apartment set-up might imply. There aren’t a great many scenes of intense action — but that doesn’t mean this is just a bunch of people sitting around talking. The drama comes from watching these three women negotiate their environment knowing how they truly feel, and seeing where they need to mask their ideals for survival.
There is also the question some Jewish readers may be too shy to ask, so I’ll answer it anyway: How do we make out in all this? And the answer is… not too bad, at least compared to most movies about Israel’s non-Jewish minorities. Though the film is set in Tel Aviv, Jews are pretty much absent from this story.
When the topic comes up, it’s mostly in the form of micro-aggression. Laila and Salma get some glances from a shopkeeper, but to be fair they are being kinda boisterous. Another moment (when there are some guys at the apartment) a news broadcast mentions an incident of Arab provocation at the police and someone shouts “yeah, right!” But isn’t disbelief at the media a universal thing?
Then there’s the moment when Salma (who changes jobs a lot) is washing dishes in a restaurant and is scolded for speaking Arabic, as it makes the patrons “uncomfortable.” This is something that can only be categorized as racism, and has the smack of verisimilitude, too. What’s more, watching as an American, it’s the type of infuriating restriction put on Arab-Israelis in wider Israeli culture that I never thought about before.
But this is all background noise to what the movie is really about: three women on a personal journey, finding aid and compassion only in one another, and not in any established institutions.
In an interview with the far-left blog 972mag, Hamoud speaks quite eloquently about her very precarious position, especially considering how many in the Arab world would like nothing more than to sweep her liberal vision under the rug under the safety of the BDS umbrella.
“Yes, the state is giving me money, because I deserve to make films from the money I fucking pay [in taxes]. I’m not ashamed, and I deserve even more. And still, I would have taken money from elsewhere in order to lift the cloud of a boycott, but there’s nowhere else. So I took from the state, and the film will be screened as an Israeli-French movie, despite it being mostly Arab-Palestinian,” she tells the blog.
There’s no lack of defiance in her voice, but this is not an angry film. (Well, most of it. I am deliberately tiptoeing around a major sub-plot.) But the fact that no one climbs the barricades does not mean it is a defeatist film either. These are women caught up in very strong cultural tides, desperately clinging to the rocks of their own individuality. That there’s also humor, great music and an abundance of gorgeous photography (Laila’s outfits!) means that for all the socio-political daring, this is still above all else an entertaining time at the movies. I can’t wait to see what Hamoud will do next.