Film Review: In Between

A propulsive debut from Maysaloun Hamoud.
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Girls just wanna have the freedom to have fun in this electric debut from Arab-Israeli filmmaker Maysaloun Hamoud. Her In Between is a political film, critical of Arab culture and Arab-Israeli relations, but thanks to the strength of its characterizations it is never a didactic film. Hamoud proves once again the potency of a tried-and-true formula: Elucidate the macro through the personal.

Three Palestinian twenty-something women are sharing an apartment together in Tel Aviv. There’s Lalia (Mouna Hawa), the gorgeous-and-she-knows-it criminal lawyer who plays just as hard as she works, which is to an extreme. She is a thick-skinned, cosmopolitan woman who has yet to abandon her belief in romance and who is capable of great tenderness. Lalia has been roommates for some time with Salma (Sana Jammelieh), a DJ who is cool to the point of sullenness, who comes from a Christian family in Galilee, and who is beginning to explore her feelings for another woman. At the beginning of the film, they’re joined by a devout Muslim student named Nur (Shaden Kanboura), who rents their third bedroom so she can be closer to her university. Nur wears a hijab and doesn’t know what raves are; her fiancée, a man so unctuously pious one suspects he doth pray too much, doesn’t like the drinking, smoking, fornicating ways of her new roommates. But after a rocky start, Nur bonds with Lalia and Salma. She resists her fiancée’s attempts to convince her to move elsewhere. We know this cannot end easily.

Meanwhile, Lalia and Salma wrestle with romantic entanglements of their own. The seemingly liberal Arab man for whom Lalia has fallen may not be as enlightened as he first appeared, while Salma must juggle the romantic freedom she enjoys while living on her own in Tel Aviv with the unyieldingly traditional viewpoints of her family. Again, no easy solutions are in sight.

Although the film is only an hour and 45 minutes long, it’s as if Hamoud took a cue from prestige TV in structuring her story. The narrative thread for each woman is distinct: We have the A, B and C stories that converge at important moments. Without resorting to cumbersome flashbacks or clunky exposition, we are given a clear understanding of the life of each protagonist as we follow her for a time solo. It is the time taken to explore these women individually that makes those occasions when they interact together so impactful. When a moment of shocking violence occurs, the emotionality of their reactions is deepened by this understanding of each in her turn, and continues to reverberate to the film’s conclusion. Even when heartbreaking, it’s cannily done.

The actress who plays Salma is a DJ in real life, as is Hamoud, and the film benefits from their expertise as it sounds a thumping score of underground music from Tel Aviv. There’s an anarchic, F-U vibe to much of the soundtrack. But the film’s greatest strength lies in its unwillingness to go for an easy sense of righteousness. Yes, these women are asserting themselves; yes, there are victories gained. But swimming against the tide and living “freely” is not easy. Even when it’s the comparatively better choice, it may not make you happy.

In Between ends on a note of ambiguity over which a less confident filmmaker may have glossed, or eschewed altogether. But Hamoud, who, thanks to In Between, has become the target of the first fatwa to be issued in Palestine since 1948, is nothing if not confident in her choices. This story of clashing values and women chafing and pretty young things in-and-out-of-love is not novel, however of-the-moment it may be politically. But when filtered through Hamoud’s sensibility, the result is distinctive, a mix of rock ’n’ roll and sorrow. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Isabelle Huppert chose the writer-director to receive the Women in Motion Young Talents Award. She is indeed one to watch.

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