Three Palestinian women living in an apartment in Tel Aviv try to find a balance between traditional and modern culture. Israeli and French made film with a Hungarian female director.
“Men don’t like women who raise their voices,” a matriarch says as she waxes a crying, younger woman’s legs in the opening scene of Arab Israeli director Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between. She continues her litany of misguided wisdom: “In bed, do what he tells you.” From this we cut immediately to a group of Arab youth in the midst of a throbbing wedding party, the women snorting Ritalin and definitely raising their voices as they toast the end of a friend’s singledom. As the title suggests, the characters of Hamoud’s film live somewhere between these extremes — between tradition and independence, obligation and abandon.
They’re in between geographically, too. The film follows three young Palestinian women living together in an apartment in Tel Aviv: lawyer and party animal Laila (Mouna Hawa) and DJ-chef-bartender Salma (Sana Jammelieh) are close friends whose tastes and attitudes mostly align, but into their lives comes Nur (Shaden Kanboura), a hijab-wearing, modest student from a conservative family. Her shy, nervous glances at their lifestyle speak not so much to her judgment, but to her curiosity. Together, the trio start to bond in unlikely ways.
In its broad strokes, In Between offers a somewhat predictable set of beats: Nur’s dour, Hadith-quoting fiancé, who looks down on Laila and Salma, quickly turns out to be a repellent fellow. Laila herself finds romance with a somewhat more open-minded Muslim man, who proves his shortcomings more slowly and subtly. Salma, meanwhile, learns the limits of her wealthy, liberal Christian family’s supposed tolerance. But Hamoud’s three bright actresses bring such a sense of authenticity to their roles that this all feels new. All too often films about these sorts of culture clashes feature performers who overdo their characters’ free-spirited ways, as if those who challenge some societal expectations must live in a state of perpetual confrontational hedonism. But here, it’s understated, mundane. Laila and Salma’s lives are their lives; their behavior is not a polemic.
This lived-in quality to the performances and milieu serve the film well. That, combined with Hamoud’s unhurried, restrained visual style, allows for tension, emotion, and meaning to build together. In some ways, In Between is more notable for what it isn’t: There’s little mention made here of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (a restaurant manager berates the Arab chefs and kitchen workers for speaking their own language, noting that it makes patrons uncomfortable), and what little overt politics come up exist largely in the personal sphere. That feels familiar, and true. In Between is a movie not so much about suffering as it is about the grinding reality of just being. These are ordinary women living their ordinary lives, trying to carve out a place for themselves while navigating the expectations of different worlds. Their solidarity is not national, or cultural, but intimate.
BILGE EBIRI, The Village Voice, 4 January 2018.
After watching Maysaloun Hamoud’s sparkling, taboo-breaking first feature In Between (Bar Bahar), audiences will have to seriously update their ideas about the lifestyle of Palestinian women in Israel. Like Maha Haj’s Personal Affairs, the other fest-hopping film directed by a Palestinian femme this year, In Between focuses not on politics but on daily life, yet its portrait of social change is most revealing. As the film documents, alongside the traditional male-dominated Arab family structure there exist independent females who are incredibly cool and part of an uninhibited underground scene that looks more like Beirut than Tel Aviv. Hamoud recounts all this in a breezy, light-hearted dramedy of girl power that made its double bow in Toronto and San Sebastian.
Certainly their freedom comes at a price, but despite some dark and dramatic moments, none of the three young women looks likely to go back to a traditional life as a hidden hausfrau, however uncomfortable it can be to live "in between" tradition and modernity. With her mocking attitude and magnetic looks, unrepentant chain smoker Laila (Mouna Hawa) is a sophisticated attorney by day, fluent in Hebrew as well as Arabic, and an attraction for her male, Jewish colleagues. But by night she lets her wild-woman hair down and parties hard. Not just cigarettes and booze, but coke and sexual innuendo are chronicled in the opening disco sequence, which reads like a challenge to straight society. When introduced to a good-looking filmmaker named Ziad (played by Mahmoud Shalaby, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea), she’s happy to fall in love and relate, until she discovers he’s not as open-minded as he seems. Then her priorities assert themselves.
Laila shares an apartment with her gay friend Salma (Sana Jammelieh, sporting tattoos and a nose ring), another humorously painted sophisticate who grabs audience sympathy faster than the time it takes her to pass a joint. She flits through jobs as a galley slave, bartender and DJ without great concern. Her conservative Christian family flips out when she brings the lovely Dr. Dunya (Ahlam Canaan) home for a visit, the very weekend she’s supposed to be getting acquainted with a nerdy potential husband.
These tough ladies with a mind of their own don’t bat an eye over the arrival of a fully covered Islamic IT student, Nour (Shaden Kanboura), who has come to live with them. Despite the prejudice her plump, awkward figure may initially incite, she’s fully individualized by Kanboura as a woman in transition, just on the brink of liberating herself. In one of the film’s most shocking moments, her arrogant fiance (Henry Andrawas), who can't fathom why she wants to study and work instead of keeping house for him and their future offspring, makes an unforgivable gesture of disrespect that kicks the stakes up a notch and sets off a compassionate display of solidarity. Far from shunning Nour, Laila and Salma offer a silent support group by their mere presence.
The atmosphere is revved up by MG Saad’s rocking score and bright, wide-open cinematography by Itay Gross.
Deborah Young, The Hollywood Reprter, 20 September 2016.