This summer, the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) passed a controversial law that defines the country as a “Jewish nation-state.” The law limits the right to exercise self-determination to the Jewish people by declaring Jerusalem the “complete and united” capital city of Israel; by enshrining settlement expansion as a “national value”; and by demoting Arabic from its former status as an official language to a language with an undefined “special status.” The spirit of the law suggests, through stipulations, that in the case of a conflict between the Jewish values of the State of Israel and its democratic ones — the Jewish values should always prevail. This new law codifies an already existent reality, and provides a timely backdrop to the screening of Palestinian director Maysaloun Hamoud’s film Bar Bahar (In Between, 2017), which was featured in “The Future of Film is Female” series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Hamoud’s feature debut tells the story of three young Palestinian women who share an apartment in Tel Aviv, and their struggles to reconcile the expectations of their traditional families with the liberated but alienated lifestyle they enjoy in the big city.
Galilee-born Hamoud presents an energetic and taboo-breaking film about the overlooked and often unheard of population of young Palestinian citizens of Israel who live in predominantly Jewish cities, as the filmmaker herself does. It’s the first to address the issue of a twice-oppressed population of women — both by a patriarchal social order at home and a hostile and discriminating Israeli majority outside.
Laila (Muna Hawa), a liberated and strong-willed lawyer from the northern city of Nazareth, who parties as hard as she works, is in the director’s words “the superego of every Palestinian woman.” Salma (Sana Jammalieh) is an aspiring DJ from a small Galilee village who works at bars and restaurants to earn her keep. Fearful of her parents’ reprobation, she hides her gay identity from them and tolerates their incessant attempts to match her up with a traditional groom, providing for some of the film’s best comic moments.
Nour (Shaden Kanboura), is a conservative computer science student from the predominantly Islamist city of Umm al-Fahem in the north of Israel. The head-scarfed new roommate struggles to adjust to the (relatively) promiscuous lifestyle of her roommates and hides all traces of debauchery in the apartment (alcohol bottles, ashtrays, pipes) in a panic when visited by her ultra-conservative fiancé Wissam.
The tribulations of the three roommates are exacerbated when Laila, who allows herself to fall for a slick and mysterious former New-Yorker (Ziad), is disillusioned and heart-broken when his traditional true self is revealed (“Do you think you’re living in Europe?” he chastises her after demanding that she quits smoking and carousing). Salma faces the wrath of her parents after getting caught with her new girlfriend Dunia, whom she dares to bring home. Nour, in a moving performance by Kanboura, finally musters the courage to fight back against her abusive fiancé with the help of her roommates. This particularly difficult storyline caused a backlash against the film from Arab conservatives in the city Umm al-Fahem, where the fiancé character hails from. Local zealots were quick to ban the film and issue a fatwa against the filmmaker, accusing her of violating the values of Islam and wishing violence and failure upon her. Hamoud predicted those hostile responses but nevertheless walked bravely into the fire and produced a candid and sincere film that draws from hers and her friends’ personal experiences.
Hamoud’s belongs to a fledgling wave of Palestinian women directors, whose films have been reaping successes in festivals around the world in the past few years. Her film checks off many “firsts” in Palestinian cinema — this is the first time Palestinian women are seen pot-smoking, coke-snorting, and girl-kissing on screen. A shaky hand-held camera follows the action in Tel-Aviv’s trendiest bars and clubs, as well as the girls’ rented apartment at the center of the city, adequality conveying the precariousness of a life lived secretly. The scenes that follow the characters’ visits to their families’ homes in the periphery are delivered in tight and suffocating fixed frames. Yet with all the anxiety that emanates from theses transitions, the film alternates between the contrasting environments in an upbeat flow, infused with humor and irony, while accurately depicting the crises of a generation torn schizophrenically between two unfavorable worlds.
Bar Bahar (In Between, 2016) by Maysaloun Hamoud was shown as part of the “The Future of Film is Female” series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on August 1 and will be shown at The Shropshire Rainbow Film Festival, UK on October 7.
Wow, thanks for writing about this film! I saw it and loved it but did not understand the cultural significance of all the details you delve into here. Fascinating! More from this writer, please.
The racist, imperialist views and policies of the right-wing Israeli government are not “Jewish values.” Millions of progressive secular Jews like me support the Palestinians’ struggle for self-determination and abhor the escalating Israeli aggressions against the Palestinian people. Our values reflect the paramount Jewish commandment of tikkun olam — heal the world. Work for social justice.
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