The Palestinian experience, as captured by most movies set around and among the splintered territories, is one of fallen rockets and suicide bombers, checkpoints and forbidden communiqués, apartheid and suffering. Division is the key word: intractable, punishing, irreconcilable.
There are dividing lines separating the characters of In Between as well, but it’s unlike any other Palestinian film I’ve ever seen. Budapest-born, Israeli-educated director Maysaloun Hamoud’s first feature is arguably the most vibrant, astute, three-dimensional movie yet about the lives of millennial Palestinian women, whose quest is less for a nation to call their own — they’re cynical enough to know when a ship has sailed — than it is for self-actualization in a backward-leaning, patriarchal culture. It’s about identity politics, not geopolitics.
Hamoud grew up in the Palestinian avant-garde, but her filmmaking style is clean and conservative, as uncomplicated as her characters are complex. Laila (Mouna Hawa), the upwardly mobile Palestinian at the film’s center, lives in an apartment in Tel Aviv. She’s a criminal lawyer by day and a partier by night, like the club kids of Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco. When she’s not on the job, she’s almost always high, and she wears so much makeup we can hardly see her.
Her roommate, the similarly cosmopolitan firecracker Salma (Sana Jammelieh), likes to DJ when she’s not being subjected to a litany of first dates by her matchmaking parents. The men are inevitably uninteresting, not least because Salma prefers women — a revelation that won’t sit well with her traditional, politician father.
In Between’s title accurately reflects the cultural no-(wo)man’s land its characters inhabit. They are minorities within minorities, subsets within subsets — rootless nihilists surrounded by two religions with which they’ll never identify, in a country that isn’t their own. The characters’ interactions with Israelis are generally uneasy. “We don’t bite,” Salma tells a reticent shop employee warily absorbing the Arabic she overhears in her store. When an Israeli attorney flirts with Laila about a date following their trial, he ventures that “peace could erupt at any minute,” a salvo taken properly as a laugh line.
Another perspective will soon arrive in the form of Nour (Shaden Kanboura), a friend of Salma’s cousin who moves into the apartment while studying computer science in Tel Aviv. A quiet orthodox woman, she’s set to marry Wissam (Henry Andrawes), a devout Muslim man who detests the debauchery of her new roommates and the influence they’re beginning to cast on his dutiful future wife. And why does she need to be studying for a degree, anyway, when her role is in the home?
Wissam is right to be worried about Nour straying from the customs imposed on her, and his attempt to wrest ownership and control from his increasingly curious fiancée results in the film’s most unflinching scene.
The conflicts at the heart of In Between are timeless and timely: tradition versus modernity, cloistered religiosity versus liberated secularity. In Between captures the woke zeitgeist of the #MeToo/Time’s Up movement, but these sentiments have been roiling in the underground Arab world for years.
As writer-director Hamoud told an interviewer while promoting the movie, “The youthful spirit of the Arab Spring did not pass over Palestine/Israel. We were all there with our souls. In one moment cries of ‘Kefaya’ (Arabic for ‘Enough’) left the mouths of millions of young people who were tired of the old biases based on oppression, patriarchy, sexism, exclusion, repression of homosexuality and the perpetuation of traditional codes that were aimed at securing the existing order.”
In Between is an aspirational movie for young Palestinian women seeking to upend this order, but it deserves a global reach. The women’s stories channel the universal travails of suppressed minorities anywhere, which helps explain its inclusion in Jewish film festivals and LGBTQ film festivals alike. Its chances of opening in one of the Palestinian territories’ two remaining cinemas, with their anodyne American blockbusters, are unfortunately slim to none. I have a feeling the resourceful Palestinian underground is finding a way to see it anyway.
IN BETWEEN (BAR BAHAR). Director: Maysaloun Hamoud; Cast: Mouna Hawa, Sana Jammelieh, Shaden Kanboura, Mahmoud Shalaby, Henry Andrawes; in Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles; Distributor: Film Movement; Opens: Friday at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton