Conflicting identities

Maysaloun Hamoud’s debut feature film tells the story of three Arab women living in Tel Aviv.

Israeli Arab Maysaloun Hamoud is the director of ‘In Between,’ a film that seeks a head-on collision with the taboos of Arab culture (photo credit: AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Israeli Arab Maysaloun Hamoud is the director of ‘In Between,’ a film that seeks a head-on collision with the taboos of Arab culture
(photo credit: AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Maysaloun Hamoud is pleased as punch.
One Wednesday evening in late January, the young film director is in Tel Aviv addressing a group of film students at the opening event of a lecture series at the seaside Hamidrasha Gallery of Beit Berl College.
The following day and into the weekend she will be in Nazareth for a special screening of her first feature film “In Between” ‒ known by its Arabic name “Bar, Bahar,” which means “Land, Sea” ‒ at the invitation of the group Women Against Violence, a Palestinian-Israeli women’s advocacy group.
The film already had created quite a buzz with Hamoud’s resolute portrayal of an underground scene of young Arab Israelis involving normally taboo topics in her society such as sexuality, drugs, parties, homosexuality and violence against women.
Following the conflicted lives of three young Arab-Israeli women sharing a flat in Tel Aviv far from the prying eyes of their families and traditional society, Hamoud says she wanted to present a reality of which she is a part and which coalesced, she says, following the Arab Spring rebellions in neighboring Arab countries. Though in Israel there was no political revolution, young Arabs here also felt the need for rebellion against established oppressive and repressive patriarchal norms, she says.
“This is our answer to the fundamental attacks. When Women Against Violence approached us for a screening, they hit the iron on the head. It is a very powerful act as a woman to screen it. Everywhere we go, it is without fear. It is very exciting,” says Hamoud, 35, whose 10 fingernails are each painted with a different color of polish.
This is exactly the sort of dialogue the rookie movie director wanted to initiate when she began work on her first feature- length film.
“I knew we were preparing a gift for the world. We knew that we would be representing a lot of voices that haven’t been represented,” she says.
The three main characters each have their own demons to fight. Leila, a successful lawyer played seductively and uncompromisingly by actress Mouna Hawa, confronts the difficult truth of finally falling in love while still remaining true to herself; Salma, a DJ and bartender played by first-time actress Sana Jammelieh, sporting tattoos and a nose piercing, must face her conventional Christian family about her lesbianism; and Nour, a traditional Muslim and university computer science student from Umm el- Fahm, portrayed superbly by stage actress Shaden Kanboura, questions the demands of her conservative fiancée to horrible consequences.
In the end, Nour’s father, a simple shopkeeper from the village, is the only redeeming parental figure in the movie.
In addition to the struggles within their own society, the women encounter a less than accepting Jewish society in Tel Aviv, despite Mouna’s low-key flirtation with a Jewish colleague.
“Let’s leave it as is,” Mouna tells her admirer, an ever-present cigarette in her hand, when he proposes she take him up on his long-standing invitation to dinner. “You couldn’t handle the consequences.”
Other Jewish characters fair less well.
In the restaurant kitchen where she works, Salma’s Jewish boss loses it when she and an Arab co-worker speak to each other in Arabic, and an employee in a clothing store raises her eyebrows when two of the characters ask for directions to the dressing room.
“I don’t think they ever get used to Tel Aviv, but this city also never [lets them] become a part of it,” says Hamoud of her characters.
“I wanted to focus on them within the city. Tel Aviv is like the rest of the country.
[At first] it seems like it isn’t, but in the end it is. You see that with the interaction of the Tel Aviv characters ‒ you see their view.”
A FANTASTIC original soundtrack by MG Saad accompanies the movie, helping to feel the vibe.
Right after its first showing in Israel on January 5, the mayor of the Arab town of Umm el-Fahm called for a boycott of the movie, which has won accolades and awards abroad, saying it was immoral and depicted several of the characters from the town negatively.
At the same time, in the first weeks after the movie’s local debut, Hamoud became much sought after in the Israeli Jewish media who were eager to hear the backstory of this newly revealed underground world of Tel Aviv Arab life, unknown to most of Jewish-Israeli society.
Her open use and identification as a “Palestinian Israeli” without any antagonism also set off a round of comments from Jewish Israelis.
“The reaction has been fascinating,” says Hamoud, who is equally at ease speaking in Hebrew, Arabic and English. “The movie premiered… and we were in the middle of a ‘war’ in terms of the reaction of both the Jewish Israelis and the Palestinian Israelis.
It opened people’s eyes and broke stereotypes.
People could identify universally.”
For the first few days, the response to the boycott call was frightening, admits Hamoud, who received threatening messages on her Facebook page asking where she wanted a bullet: “in the head, in the chest or between the legs.”
Still, the call for a boycott did not come as a total surprise, she says. They knew they were doing something revolutionary, touching upon so many of the unspoken taboos of Arab society, but not making the movie was never an option.
“This is what I have, I don’t know how to do anything else and I am willing to pay the price,” she says. “Now I can laugh at Umm el-Fahm’s boycott, but at first it was scary.”
It was the backing and love they received from supporters and family that helped them through the difficult moments.
She arranged to go to Paris and Palm Springs with the film for film festivals during that initial period with producer Shlomi Elkabetz, brother of the celebrated Israeli actress and director Ronit Elkabetz who died last year. By the time they returned to Israel, the energies had changed and the playing field was now theirs, she says.
“After the initial two days of disaster, everything stopped. I thank Umm el-Fahm for bringing so much attention to us. Now there is not a Palestinian in Israel who does not know what it [the film] is,” she says.
ALL THE northern cinemas were sold out and needed to put in a second showing, she says. And, almost a month after the movie’s first screening, the momentum had not stopped. “The love we received gave us the strength [to face] that it was just a wave of violence and would go away.”
A private screening was held for the parents of all the actresses before the official opening.
“It was so heartwarming how all the parents reacted. Sana’s father is a dentist and he is 80 years old. He sat a bit after watching the movie and said, ‘I have to say I thought it would be worse,’” says Hamoud. “We received warmth and love and appreciation.”
Her own father, she says, was “strutting like a peacock” after the screenings.
“I am an extension of him, as a daughter and in my art,” says Hamoud, who grew up in a communist household. “My whole family has been very supportive. It is very important to know that your family is behind you.”
At just 24 years of age, she says she was quite removed from the film world and had never imagined herself making a movie but knew she had something to say and that film was the medium in which she wanted to say it.
Hamoud says it took her awhile to realize she didn’t need to use a male hero to tell the story of the women.
Similar to two recent Hollywood films that broke ground with almost all-black casts and another Arab-Israeli movie, “Ajami,” “In Between” uses almost an entirely Arab cast, many of whom had never acted before, and is filmed almost entirely in Arabic.
In “In Between” there is conflict between many elements within the dialogue of cinema.
“Their [the women’s] apartment is very colorful as opposed to their gray surroundings; the props are colorful; the lighting takes over; and there is always the feeling of being neither here nor there,” says Hamoud.
“There is always something in conflict with something else. There are a lot of identities and conflicts here. The women have never really gotten used to Tel Aviv. Although they are part of the city, they are not really a part of it.”
The groundbreaking movie, which had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2016, received three awards, including the Best Debut Feature film award at the 2016 Haifa International Film Festival; four awards at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, including the San Sebastián award itself, as well as other international awards.
THE MOVIE took two years to complete because, Hamoud says, it was very important for her to make it as realistic as possible – one of the reasons she uses several “non-actors” for certain parts.
“I wanted to bring something fresh in all ways,” she says, adding that as she was writing the script, she realized the narrative would be the start of a trilogy, she can’t talk more about yet, rather than just one movie.
She wrote the script in Hebrew because of the logistics of also working with Jewish Israelis on the film, who do not know Arabic, and worked with the actors while translating it into Arabic to make it their language and have the movie seem as natural as possible.
One of her concerns while making the movie was that viewers would think the movie is autobiographical, she says.
Though Hamoud says she is part of that Tel Aviv Palestinian-Israeli scene, she notes that the narrative of the movie is fictional.
Although Hamoud had hoped the movie would be screened at the Palestinian Film Festival in Ramallah last year, after some deliberation the organizers decided it would not be a wise move to show the controversial film in their first year.
“At first, we thought we would do our premier at the festival but then we received a letter from the organizers and, while they said it was clear the film was a cinematic success, they felt that Palestinians in the West Bank were not ready to accept this movie. It was sad; they were artists, intellectuals,” she says. “They told me if they were already an established festival maybe they would screen it but as it is they are walking on eggshells their first year.”
She makes a point of saying that it can’t be concluded that Arab-Israeli society is more open than in the West Bank because it has been influenced by Jewish-Israeli society. No, she says. The northern border area Arab has just always traditionally been more open, and in addition the tough conditions under which Palestinians live in the West Bank affect the dynamics and openness of society itself.
“I would love to keep this inside dialogue going, to talk about all these taboo subjects and start to talk about it more to create an awareness of women’s freedom,” she says. “Dialogue is a way of changing minds; that’s what we want to do, create a change of minds for both societies. I hope it will happen. I don’t want to keep this as a dialogue that takes place only in the movie and ends with the movie.”