Ignited by the recent mass reckoning of sexual harassment and assault, a sub-dialogue (if you can call it that) has unfolded, seemingly between mostly men, or men talking at women, or simply men semi-publicly bloviating into the void about how there are degrees to misogyny and sexual assault, and how those degrees matter. If we’re up to it we’ll respond: Yes, obviously catcalling and groping and unequal pay and gaslighting and mansplaining and rape are not all the same thing, nor is the experience of any one of those things the same for any two people—now can men please just stop doing all those things?
I recommend that we direct these self-appointed sexism experts to Palestinian filmmaker Maysaloun Hamoud’s feature debut “In Between” (“Bar Bahar” in Arabic) about three 20-something Arab-Israeli women living together in a Tel Aviv flat while navigating patriarchy and seeking respite in the city’s underground party scene (the depiction of which earned Hamoud the first fatwa issued in Palestine in seven decades). For some, the film serves as an urgent education; for others, a vital shift in tone and perspective on a world we know too well through a more micro web of experiences rarely depicted onscreen—the interior lives of brown women pushing back against tradition.
Hamoud makes plain the multifarious but always grave implications of both overt and covert misogyny through the periodically intersecting stories of Laila (Mouna Hawa), a chain smoking, take-no-shit criminal lawyer by day and fuck-this-shit partier by night; Salma (Sana Jammelieh), a pierced, laid-back DJ who one minute is flirting with another woman and the next is humoring her Christian parents by enduring dinners with unimpressive male suitors; and their new flatmate Nour (Shaden Kanboura), a computer science student whose own quiet piety initially divides her from her decidedly less inhibited roommates—though early on chuckles at a well-endowed toy figurine and a moment of dancing alone offset Nour’s apparent austerity.
Viewed most often through the dusky lens of fringe nightlife, Hamoud’s Tel Aviv feels familiar to city dwellers who have never set foot in Palestine. A boozy maze of lived-in corners and guiding streetlights, fuzzy electronica (often spun by Salma, in this case) bouncing off walls—the relief found in shadows, where it’s a bit easier to blend in. It’s a credit to how “In Between” points to the ubiquitous need to carve out one’s own space in life under oppression, even though here we’re dealing with a very particular set of circumstances; that is, 50 years of Israeli occupation.
The hostility surrounding Palestinians is palpable here: Salma quits her kitchen day job when she is chastised for speaking Arabic; she and Laila roll their eyes at the contempt thrown their way while shopping at a boutique. But anti-Palestinian sentiment serves more as an entangled backdrop than a narrative thread. Hamoud’s (albeit expansive) focus is the expectation that women live for men—which of course is far from unique to Arab women, though plenty of casual xenophobes insist that women must be “saved” from the hijab. Subscribers to this particular brand of White Feminism would also do well to pay attention to Nour’s story: By the end of the film, she finds strength and independence—and she still wears her hijab. The main source of her repression is not her Muslim faith but her scum fiance (Henry Andrawes), who exploits the label of religious morality and charity to excuse his own abusive behavior (needless to say, this kind of corruption is found at every level of all religions).
Here’s your trigger warning, by the way: a brutal rape (no male gaze here, though) about 45 minutes in. Salma and a very drunk Laila return from a night out to find Nour weeping on the bathroom floor. Laila can’t help but vomit into the toilet before coming to her flatmate’s aid. She and Salma hold Nour, undress her, and bathe her as she cries. The scene at once conjures the devastation sexual assault doles out and the empowerment that tender solidarity brings in turn—all tempered by a shot of hard realism via Laila’s barf.
Tragedy never strikes when we’re ready, and vomit is a perfectly reasonable response.
The three women’s stories coil more tightly as they seek justice—or at least a way out for Nour from her doomed marriage. This plotline carries none of the sensationalism or negligence delivered in too many male-directed rape revenge flicks, and Hamoud and her heroines are less interested in punishment than resolution. If retribution has a place anywhere, it’s in movies, which can deliver vengeance with more gratification than life ever could. But Hamoud has no intention of appeasement; that would be counterproductive. She does, however, offer a subtle dose of “Thelma & Louise” vibes by peering into her characters through plenty of car windshield shots—when there’s a man in the car, a woman is always in the driver’s seat.
In the meantime, Laila and Salma continue to push against the nuanced patriarchal forces in their own lives. Laila can’t have a single night of fun without actively dodging unwanted advances; and her ostensibly progressive boyfriend (Mahmoud Shalaby) proves just as old-fashioned as all the rest, intolerant of her brazen autonomy and insisting that she tone it down while making no promises to do the same. Salma finds her family to be unaccepting, to say the least, of her attraction to women—and moreover, her lack of attraction to men. The three are entwined by the shared state of existing “in between” the reality of a stagnant social order and the strained attempts to live life as they envision it: free without fear. All three performers dig down into that narrow space and draw out the anxious energy it cultivates within each character—Hawa through Laila’s no-fucks-left-to-give restlessness, Jammelieh with Salma’s perpetual eye roll, Kanboura burrowed deep into Nour’s timid uncertainty.
Through her sweeping yet appropriately understated storytelling, Hamoud applies even consideration to different points on the “spectrum of behavior” as prescribed by Matt Damon in reference to the abusive and sexist tendencies of men. She trivializes nothing in the process. With patent effortlessness—because wow women tell women’s stories pretty well huh?—she shows how those points aren’t really points at all, but branches of the same root; how for women living in a culture the “progressive” West often dismisses as outmoded, something so quotidian as men’s casual entitlement to their attention is still a stinging reminder of their place, and sexual assault is no less shattering.
For people who live through this, none of “In Between” is revelatory, and the film never reaches the depth of the wounds inflicted upon Nour, Salma, Laila, and the people they represent—how could it? If the narrative ever feels cursory, it’s not for carelessness or oversight, but for the big step back (and forward, and back again) necessary to place in view an impossibly near-comprehensive picture of how half the world lives.
“In Between,” directed by Maysaloun Hamoud, opens on Jan. 19 at The Parkway.