In Between (Bar Bahar)

Israel (2016) Dir. Maysaloun Hamoud

“If you have a dollar, you are worth a dollar; if you have nothing, you are worth nothing”

This is just one of the sad but incisive aphorisms you’ll find in this debut feature film from Israeli director Maysaloun Hamoud shared between the three seemingly disparate female leads with more in common that meets the eye.

Set in Tel Aviv, criminal defence lawyer Laila (Mouna Hawa) shares a flat with lesbian DJ and chef Salma (Sana Jammelieh) and third friend Rafif, who is away at university. Both are strong, independent, tattooed and pierced party girls, not adverse to drink, drugs and flirty evenings out which they keep from their traditionalist and devout families.

With a spare bedroom going, Rafif offers it to her Muslim hijabi student cousin Nour (Shaden Kanboura) while her dorm is being renovated. Despite the obvious differences, the three women realise how alike they are when it comes to fitting in the expectations of society and their disapproving families.

So many films, naturally from female directors, have recently come out of the Middle East, covering the topic of female oppression in a modern patriarchal and theocratic society. It’s a double-edged sword – on one hand it’s a sign women are standing up for themselves and making their voices heard, on the other it’s unfortunate it remains a persistent subject when the message should be clear by now.

Maysaloun Hamoud presents us with an urgent and frank representation of the modern woman in Israel that isn’t designed to reinvent the wheel in terms of storyline, or shock the devout and traditional with this raw and honest look at the modern women who simply want to live their lives as they choose. There are some heavy moments that are quite uncomfortable to watch, as is expected with such a thorny subject, but this isn’t about courting sympathy for the three leads.

The title refers to the grey area the women inhabit – being their own people with their own identities amongst those who accept them for who they are, and living within the stifling, judgemental glare of the “respectable” society who demand they be someone else. Hamoud’s main thrust is deconstructing the myth that appearances are a reflection of the person, making it work both ways for the oppressive characters too.

Laila is the prime example, a heavily made up, chain-smoking dance floor queen with big hair and a bigger capacity for drink and weed, yet has the respectable job of lawyer for which she slips into her smart business attire and tied back hair. She has a formidable reputation in the law courts yet is confident enough to rebuff advances from leering male colleagues.

In the opposite corner is Wissam (Henry Andrawes), Nour’s pious fiancé, who accuses Laila and Salma of corrupting Nour and turning her into a “whore” by association. Nour is studying computer science but Wissam forbids her to work, demanding she prepare for a life of uxorial duties and motherhood instead like a good Muslim wife. But just as Wissam has everyone thinking he is an honourable Muslim, he reveals his ugly, hypocritical side.

Yet Wissam is challenged for the title of “worst male of the film” by the Christian father of lesbian Salma when discovers his daughter’s true sexual preference when she brings her girlfriend, doctor Dunya (Ahlam Canaan), to a dinner with a prospective husband. The despicable things that he says to Salma are deeply offensive and uncalled for but given his staunch piety and the world he lives in, it is sadly unsurprising.  

Then there is the idea that the women shouldn’t have to compromise with Laila strongly propagates when she falls for Ziad (Mahmud Shalaby), who is no stranger to partying yet asks Laila to quit smoking, dress more respectably and be more ladylike so he can introduce her to his family. Laila delivers a “take me as I am or GTFO” ultimatum that throws a spanner in the one relationship which looked like had promise.

Incidentally, there are a couple of openly gay men that make up their close friends and party posse, but no signs of persecution is shown towards them, whilst there is a dose of racial discrimination aimed at Arabs in one early scene. This isn’t pursued any further but does put a further label on Salma to fight against, as if she doesn’t have enough on her already.

Whatever they may have lost or gained, the three protagonists are not victims in the traditional sense, in that they roll over and die or acquiesce to the pressures that blight them; together they form a solid unit that is striking out for their right to be themselves and to declare that it is the rules that should change, not them.

Sadly, this act of defiance and boldness saw Hamoud receive death threats and fatwas from fundamentalists for supposedly encouraging the corruption of Muslim women (talk about missing the point), while others objected to Hamoud taking Israeli state funding to make the film. Hamoud got the last laugh however when she was rewarded at Cannes last year!

Of the three excellent leads Sana Jammelieh as Salma is the only non-professional actress being a real DJ, yet it doesn’t show as she blends in naturally and effortlessly with her experienced co-stars, the sharp featured Mouna Hawa as Laila and plumpish, every girl Shaden Kanboura as Nour.

Hamoud’s direction is straightforward and unfussy yet palpably sensitive, while the tone is surprisingly non-judgemental given the central theme of persecution, taking a matter-of-fact approach to the harder hitting scenes. It might veer into dark places within the narrative but the images are mostly suffused with vibrant colours and light by way of buttressing the message of empowerment.

In Between is another stark but necessary and relevant film from the Middle East that ups the ante in pleading the case for women’s voices in society and in cinema being heard as loudly as the men.