FILM REVIEW: ‘Bar Bahar’ (‘In Between’), a courageous film about Israeli-Palestinian relationships
Director and writer: Maysaloun Hamoud
Cast: Mouna Hawa, Sana Jammelieh, Shaden Kanboura
Israel, 2016, 100 minutes
“People say all the stories have been told, but it’s the men’s stories that have already been told”, says Maysaloun Hamoud, director of “Bar Bahar” (“In Between”). This film is this year’s winner of Berkshire International Film Festival’s Juried Narrative Film Prize and the directing debut of this Palestinian-Israeli writer-director. She wanted to delve into stories that are not usually told — three very different Palestinian-Israeli women living in the “bubble” in Tel Aviv, the most liberal of cities in the Middle East. They can take refuge here in the relative freedom. This is the “in between” life they lead between the dominant Israeli culture and their own traditional Arabic backgrounds.
Having visited Tel Aviv several times in the past few years I was quite intrigued by this premise. This film was a hit in Israel, winning a standing ovation at its premiere at the Haifa International Film Festival (also winning best feature film award). The curiosity was intense to see these lives portrayed that many Israelis were unaware of. This film has won many other awards — including three awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival and one at the Toronto Film Festival. But the director has paid a price for this outspoken taboo-breaking film — she has earned the first fatwa from Palestine in nearly 70 years. She, along with her three actresses, have also received death threats. The mayor of Umm al-Fahm, the town that one of the characters is from, has banned the film. Ms. Hamoud said that “banning actually illustrated what I was trying to say.”
This courageous film shows the difficulty of coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis (several subtle slights throughout the film) and the pull between tradition and modern life in Tel Aviv. The three unlikely protagonists are Laila — the gorgeous, wild lawyer (who maintains flirtatious relationships with the Jewish attorneys she works with); Salma — the gay DJ who has concealed her secrets from her so-called liberal Christian family; and Nour — a “hijabed” religious graduate student who is engaged to marry a very controlling traditional man.
The story begins with Laila and Salma living together, with their rather wild nightlife — sex, drugs, and dancing in underground Palestinian clubs — until they are joined by the very conservative, Nour. She arrives at their building dressed in her chador, a serious student studying computer science at Tel Aviv University. At first, it is a difficult mix but each woman has her own crisis which is supported by her “sister” roommates. Laila has met a man who makes her heart sing — he has traveled all over the world, he’s a filmmaker, and they have an idyllic relationship. Until he tells her she needs to curtail her lifestyle — stop smoking and dressing seductively — if she wants to meet his family. Salma mistakenly believes her parents will eventually accept her sexuality. But in a wild scene — they send her girlfriend away and tell her to “go to her room.”
The most tragic story is Nour’s who begins to feel the pull of modernity and decides to postpone her marriage. Her fiancé senses that he is losing control over her and sexually assaults her — truly one of the most shocking things I have seen in a film in a very long time. The filmmaker has faced a lot of criticism for this film in the portrayal of the fiancé. The director states, “You can see the weakness of the men. The women are stronger….He comes from a conservative culture and when he isn’t the man who controls everything, that sets up the violent action.”
According to the Jerusalem Post, “this movie has touched a chord throughout the world and especially in Israel.” This acclaimed first feature film definitely challenges our preconceived notions of Palestinian life in Israel. It is not just about terrorism, politics and hatred. It has really helped to humanize Palestinians in the eyes of the world, and especially in their own stomping ground. Palestinians and Israelis live very separate lives and this film helps to open up one aspect of Palestinian-Israeli life.
The cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis producing this film is another positive sign. Shlomi Elkabetz (who wrote and directed with his late sister, Ronit, the wonderful film, “The Gett”) produced this film and an Israeli cinematographer, Itay Gross, did a beautiful job filming it. The rocking Arabic score by MG Saad will have you dancing in your seat (and searching for it on iTunes). The director wants this to be the first of a trilogy about these women. Let’s hope continued Palestinian and Israeli cooperation can produce more films on a level with this one and mark the beginning of deeper cross-cultural understanding at this critical time.