In Between ****
Starring: Mouna Hawa, Shaden Kanboura, Sana Jammalieh, Mahmud Shalaby, Henry Andrawes, Ashlam Canaan
Director: Maysaloun Hamoud
In recent years, many LGBT films have come from Israel, but very few of these have focused on the lives of Palestinians. In Between bucks this trend, depicting the lives of three Palestinian women living in Tel Aviv. A Franco-Israeli-Palestinian collaboration, the film explores the difficult relationship between the opposing factions of liberalism and religious obeisance, especially when two cultures and religions are living side by side.
Leila (Hawa) and Salma (Jammalieh) are flatmates. They live a liberal life together in Tel Aviv, surrounded by a group of sexually and politically diverse friends. When student Nour (Kanboura) comes to live in their spare room, they initially struggle to connect with her due to her more devout and reserved lifestyle. But when her lecherous fiancé (Andrawes) tries to make her live somewhere he considers more suitable, the girls begin to rally round her, especially as his behaviour becomes more and more dangerous. Leila dates the liberal Ziad (Shalaby) who has just returned from New York, but when she realises that he seems ashamed for her to meet his family, she begins to question just how open-minded he actually is. Elsewhere, Salma’s family are trying to arrange a marriage for her, but she continues to date Dounia (Canaan), a woman she met whilst working in a bar. As each struggles to live authentically in what appears as a repressive culture, the bond between them gets stronger, but how long will they be able to maintain their open lives for?
This is a story about sisterhood for the twenty-first century. Though the three women are distinctly different from each other, their bond is their need for personal freedom. Initially, with her oppressive fiancé and arranged marriage, Nour appears to be the one in need of freeing, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that without the domineering presence of her intended, she was living a life she had chosen, with the support of her family. Meanwhile, her two flatmates really have to struggle to maintain the freedoms they have claimed for themselves. They realise that Nour has chosen her path, just as they had, but they all have to struggle against societal forces that seem far greater than themselves. But as Ziad says, “You wear what people want you to wear, but then you eat what you want. This isn’t Europe.”
Leila’s storyline is probably the most complex of three, as she watches a man she considered progressive slowly reverting back to reflect the culture around him. Though Leila is strong enough to stand up to him, Ziad is a character reminiscent of many Muslim men living in the west, whose enjoyment of personal freedoms they feel should not extend to their wives and family. Leila is probably the most rebellious of the three also, despite Salma’s piercings and generally westernised appearance. Salma has claimed her own freedom from her family, but when she returns to them is unable to maintain the authenticity she can live in Tel Aviv. But when the inevitable revelation of her sexuality finally comes, the parents’ reactions are as guttural and vivid as they are, unfortunately, predictable.
Nour’s storyline is, without question, the most interesting of the three. Where the others wear their hearts clearly on their sleeves, hers is veiled by tradition and personal inhibition. The most engaging sequences are when we observe her at home alone, with her hijab removed, free to dance, relax and be herself. And in a sequence later on a beach, when she strides out to sea wearing just her slip, the freedoms she now allows herself are trickling down beyond what she does behind closed doors. Her choice to wear a veil is never called into question, because her continuance to do so is a symbol of her own free will. But when her fiancé tries to call the other girls “sluts”, she is completely resolute in her defence of their freedoms too.
Tel Aviv has become a location of intrigue for LGBT People around the world because of its meeting there between East and West, which is adeptly depicted in this film. Where similar movies have taken a political standpoint on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, In Between focuses instead on the personal lives of those living on the cusp between tradition and liberty. Throughout the latter stages of the film the story is drenched in foreboding, because though the characters are living their lives as freely as they can, it is unclear how long it is possible for it to continue. So what seems like a film of air-punching optimism actually takes a much sadder turn. But in choosing to take a realist’s approach to its final act, the director has made a much better film for it.
OUT NOW IN CINEMAS.