In Between: The movie that has touched a chord throughout the world and in Israel

An interview with the intriguing Maysaloun Hamoud, who wrote and directed the celebrated film ‘In Between.’

Maysaloun Hamoud, director of ‘In Between,’ poses for a picture inside a cinema in Nazareth last month (photo credit: REUTERS)
Maysaloun Hamoud, director of ‘In Between,’ poses for a picture inside a cinema in Nazareth last month
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘People say all the stories have been told, but it’s the men’s stories that have already been told,” said Maysaloun Hamoud, the writer/director of the recently released film, In Between (Bar Bahar in Arabic), which is playing throughout Israel.
In the film, Hamoud tells the story of a kind of woman who has never been seen on screen before: young Israeli Arabs who live in Tel Aviv – in particular, young Palestinian women.
They are fluent in Hebrew, work at high-powered jobs, study at the university and take an active part in the nightlife and arts scene. They have left behind the religiously and socially conservative communities in which they grew up, and are trying to forge a new life and community — in between the worlds of the dominant Jewish Israeli culture and traditional Muslim and Arab life.
“‘Bar Bahar,’ it is a metaphysical term, it means neither on land nor sea,” explained Hamoud, who spoke to me in Hebrew – our only common language – from her apartment in Tel Aviv, where she took occasional breaks to get more coffee and to walk her dog.
“You are not on the land or in the water, it is the feeling of a generation that doesn’t live by the traditions it grew up with, and is also influenced by the West. This generation doesn’t know if it wants to be here or there. It wants freedom, but it also wants to preserve its identity. That’s the essence of the story, and it’s especially the story of the women.”
The movie is about two roommates, Laila (Mouna Hawa), a Muslim criminal lawyer who flirts easily with her Jewish colleagues and who parties as hard as she works, but who searches for love as well; and Salma (Sana Jammalieh), a lesbian DJ from an educated, Christian family who has a job as a chef. They are quite comfortable living their lives, but their routine gets shaken up when Noor (Shaden Kanboura) moves in.
From left: Actresses Sana Jammelieh (as Salma), Shaden Kanboura (as Noor) and Mouna Hawa (as Leila), in one of the film’s closing scenesFrom left: Actresses Sana Jammelieh (as Salma), Shaden Kanboura (as Noor) and Mouna Hawa (as Leila), in one of the film’s closing scenes
Noor is a devout Muslim from Umm el-Fahm whose life revolves around her computer science studies at the university and her traditional fiancé, Wissam (Henry Andrawes), who visits often. The movie shows how Noor is changed by getting to know Laila and Salma, and how all three women bond in the face of discrimination and lack of understanding from the Jewish Israeli society and repression from their own culture.
“What is so interesting about Noor is that when she comes to this apartment she doesn’t judge them. She doesn’t fit in at first, but she respects them. It shows that we can live together. We don’t all have to be the same thing. That is the story. Each one tells a different part of it,” said Hamoud.
The movie has touched a chord throughout the world and especially in Israel. In the fall of 2016, it had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it received rave reviews. Deborah Young of The Hollywood Reporter wrote: “After watching Maysaloun Hamoud’s sparkling, taboo-breaking first feature... audiences will have to seriously update their ideas about the lifestyle of Palestinian women in Israel.”
It won an award at Toronto, and then three more at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain.
Word spread to Israel, and the hottest ticket at last year’s Haifa International Film Festival was the local premiere of In Between. Post-screening receptions at Haifa are normally pretty staid events, with guests drifting away as soon as the refreshments are gone, but the cast and crew of In Between partied with the audience into the wee hours. A few days later, the film won awards for Best Debut Feature and the Fedeora Award, a critics’ prize.
BUT THERE was something very unusual about the awards at Haifa this time: the other big winner, Personal Affairs, which took the prize for Best Israeli Feature, was also directed by an Arab Israeli woman, Maha Haj.
Haj’s film, which premiered in Cannes, is different in style and tone, a meticulous movie that mixes the comic and dramatic as it examines the lives of members of a Palestinian family in Israel. It has a sweep that is almost epic, as the family members exemplify many paths that Israeli Arabs have taken. “The story kicks off when an older couple in Nazareth who are having a kind of cold war with each other begin to drive their adult children crazy. Their two children in Ramallah – a housewife daughter and an aspiring writer son – and their entrepreneur son in Sweden all step in to help.”
Personal Affairs will open throughout Israel in mid-February.
Hamoud and Haj are not the first Arab Israeli women to direct here. There have been others, among them Annemarie Jacir and Suha Arraf, but none have broken out both internationally and at home the way Hamoud and Haj have.
“There is a new wave in everything to do with women’s movies, Palestinian movies, in content and style,” said Hamoud. “There needed to be a leap, and my movie has taken the leap. The experience I’ve had with my movie is mind-blowing.
“The audience reaction surprises me each time anew. The audiences are so different, yet they react in the same way. There is something universal in it. There have been so many pre-release screenings... Everyone wants to see it – Palestinian audiences, Jewish audiences. I went and spoke at all the pre-release screenings. It was very interesting to me how people who are so different react the same way... They laugh at the same moments, they quiet down at the same moments.”
Certain questions tend to come up at the Q&A following the film.
“People ask me all the time if it is real. Many people in Israel, and around the world, can’t believe our lives are like that. They only think of Palestinians in certain ways. They think only of the conflict, of politics. They can’t believe that there are real people like the characters, that we are liberal, that there is nothing weird about this.
“There is a similar Arab cultural underground [to what is portrayed in the movie] all over the world. In the West, in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan. Artists are in this underground, there are homosexuals who are part of it, feminism is a central part of it. This scene is not only in Tel Aviv.”
MARAL QUTTIENEH, a film producer and researcher from east Jerusalem who traveled to Haifa with a group of friends to see In Between at its Israeli premiere, said to The Jerusalem Post Magazine, “She nailed it. It’s so true, so real.”
The movie concentrates on the lives of Arab Israelis and features only fleeting glimpses of Jewish Israelis, but these glimpses reveal a great deal. In one scene, a saleswoman in a trendy boutique freezes when she hears Laila and Salma speaking Arabic. In another, the hipster manager of the restaurant where Salma works forbids her to speak Arabic there, which causes her to storm out. When she applies for a new job in a Tel Aviv bar, the boho guy behind the counter, unable to place her accent, asks if she is from South America. When she tells him she is Palestinian, he says, “Cool,” as if this makes her exotic for him.
Asked what she hopes Jewish audiences feel when they see the film, Quttieneh said, “I hope they can look at Palestinians as human beings, as people who share the same financial and social problems that they do. Not slaves, not terrorists... This country is full of contradictions and we are part of those contradictions.”
Not everyone has warmed to In Between, however. Hamoud has received threats – including death threats from Islamic extremists.
Hamoud is remarkably matter-of-fact when discussing this. “I got the threats but it’s worth it,” she said, adding that her friends have rallied around her and have her back.
She has also faced criticism on a number of fronts from secular, liberal Arab Israelis, some of whom have railed against her portrayal of Wissam, the devout Muslim who commits a shocking act of violence on his fiancée.
Hamoud is defiant in the face of this kind of criticism. “You can see the weakness of the men. The women are stronger. The women choose and they pay the price. It was important for the character of Wissam to be there. He’s a human being. He comes from a conservative culture and when he isn’t the man who controls everything, that sets up the violent action. The rape in the movie is not about sex. It is the farthest thing from any scene that is sexy and titillating. It is an act of control, of power.”
Another criticism leveled at Hamoud is that she shouldn’t have accepted money from Israeli film funds and Israeli production companies, as other Arab Israeli filmmakers, notably Hany Abu-Assad and Elia Suleiman, have chosen not to do. Again, she does not mince words in response.
“I didn’t hesitate to turn to the Israeli film funds for money. Why shouldn’t I? We are 20% of the population, we pay taxes. We are Palestinians and we are Israelis and people don’t know what to make of this. People said, ‘Don’t take the Israeli money, get Arab funding.’ This is an oxymoron. There were no Arab film funds, there was nothing I could get.”
Hamoud credits her family with encouraging her. She was born in Budapest to Arab Israeli parents while her father was going to medical school there. After he became a surgeon, the family moved back to Israel so he could do his residency at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba.
“Since I was little, there was a camera in my home. My father would make home movies. It was a hobby. My parents are very proud of me, they are happy.
They saw the film at the Haifa Festival.
The world I show in the film isn’t their world. If they had had their way, my father would have wanted me to be a law student. Now my brother studies law and my sister studies medicine.”
HAMOUD GREW up seeing movies on video and DVD, and said the first movie she saw in a theater was Titanic. She soon evolved into a true cinephile and now throws around film-geek terms casually.
Asked about her cinematic influences she said, “I was very influenced by the movies of Michael Haneke. I love Pedro Almodovar. You can see their influence in the movie. When the movie was released in Spain, they loved it, I thought, ‘It’s a hit, it’s a hit,’ and I was very happy because this is Almodovar’s country. I also love Stanley Kubrick very much. He is the master of details and precision. He is a sort of god in film. Another influence was Bernardo Bertolucci – The Dreamers, that whole state of mind.”
Closer to home, she mentions Ajami, the Oscar-nominated movie by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani about Jaffa.
“It had a different perspective, and it put on a spotlight on a population that is rarely seen on screen. Usually if movies get made about Palestinians, they are over the Green Line. But here was a movie about Palestinians in Jaffa.
“I saw West Beirut by Ziad Doueiri, in 2002. That movie, it made me change the way I was thinking about movies. I thought, ‘F**k, I want to do West Beirut. My West Beirut.’ I met him when he was in Tel Aviv filming The Attack. He was an inspiration and a mentor for me. The combination of a personal story with a story about war was so intense. The movie didn’t get the recognition it deserved. It’s a masterpiece.”
 Shlomi Elkabetz. ‘He was like the father and mother to the project.’ (YOUTUBE) Shlomi Elkabetz. ‘He was like the father and mother to the project.’ (YOUTUBE)
She lived in Jerusalem for years, where she befriended artists studying at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Deciding she wanted to become a filmmaker, she naturally applied to the Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television, which wait-listed her, and eventually moved to Tel Aviv to study at the Minshar Art School. The choice turned out to be a fortuitous one, because it was there that she met Shlomi Elkabetz, who was one of her teachers. Elkabetz is best known for the trilogy of films – To Take a Wife, Shiva and Gett – that he directed with his late sister, Ronit Elkabetz.
“He taught a class on directing actors. We became friends. That’s how it came about. I wrote a half-page of an idea, about all the characters. Without expecting anything, I gave it to Shlomi, someone I respect. He had never worked on anything that wasn’t his before. When I gave it to him, I didn’t dream that he would produce it. He loved it, and I got the gift of my life. Because when he said he liked it, he said he would produce it, and I knew there would be a movie. I immersed myself in the development of the script. He gave me assignments. He was like the father and mother to the project. He got me in touch with Yuval Aharoni, the script editor. Yuval worked with me on it for three years. I had no doubt that this film would get made.”
While the present and near future seem dazzling for Hamoud – with In Between showing at festivals well into 2018 and international releases coming up all over the world, including in Europe, North America and Australia – the director is starting work on her next project.
“I want to continue the story of the characters in a trilogy. I want to do a movie about Laila. She is a character who is disconnected from the society she grew up in. She’s an alter ego for all of us. I will look at her life even more closely. I know the film language I need to tell her story.”
  Dressed-up Israeli Arab Christian women walk to join an Easter Monday parade in Jaffa, in 2014 (REUTERS) Dressed-up Israeli Arab Christian women walk to join an Easter Monday parade in Jaffa, in 2014 (REUTERS)