Of all the films I have watched towards Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival, IN BETWEEN (also called BAR BAHAR) has been my favourite. I loved spending time with Layla, Salma and Nour, Israeli-Palestinian women who share an apartment in Tel Aviv. Deceptively intimate, the storytelling sweeps the viewer into a world of explosive thematic content.
Wise words about how to please your husband by doing everything he wants is accompanied by knee waxing in the opening scene of IN BETWEEN (BAR BAHAR). The wax wielder and advice giver is some kind of nana and there is a wedding in the air. Cut to friends out at a nightclub, sharing the latest drug craze and toasting the end of singlehood for Rafif. She is swapping smoking and drinking and dancing and drugs for a traditional marriage. The two worlds are defined.
We are introduced to Layla who is a defence lawyer and free spirit from a secular Muslim family, a modern woman in an ancient land. Similarly modern is Salma, an aspiring DJ with nose ring and tatts, who works in bars as she tries to develop her career. A tough gig while fending off straight matchmaking attempts by her homophobic Christian family. Rafif has offered her recently vacated room to her cousin Nour, a computer science student and devout Muslim who turns up unexpectedly. These three are away from their families but their freedom is a fragile thing and they are the generation of women which is caught in between.
On an intimate level, the women have a enviously easy friendship. When Layla and Salma wake in their usual hung-over state, desperate for coffee, I laughed and laughed with recognition. Any woman who has been young and away from parental oversight can relate. That’s the charm here. There is recognition in the women’s experience throughout the early part of the film that gives it a statelessness which is disarmingly entertaining.
Such a lovely supportive, relationship between the women. They don’t judge each other’s choices and they literally and metaphorically hold back each other’s hair when required. And they are assaulted by the patriarchy, familial and religious, on all levels. This is where the film’s explosive content has hit the headlines. Google it up and your first hits will scream backlash. A fatwa of sorts, haram (forbidden) and death threats for director and cast.
Director Maysaloun Hamoud admits in interviews that she wanted to rattle cages but was caught unawares by the vitriol about her debut film. All that settled somewhat though, as the film began doing the International Festival Circuit. It has won all sorts of awards … direction, screenplay, acting and cinematography and is a stunning success in my book.
The acting is wonderful. Mouna Hawa as Layla is open and funloving with a steely intelligence that will not allow her to be changed for love. Sana Jammelieh brings a Salma who engages with every experience, who seeks creative input and who struggles to accept the reality that her sexual orientation is a source of danger for her. The most difficult role perhaps is that of Nour. Shaden Kanboura endows this devout woman with an inner conflict which is not rooted in her religion, rather in the hypocrisy of some of the men who espouse it. The acting is just marvellous across the board, the men, too, put in brilliant performances.
Male characters are not empathetic in this film but we do get an understanding that the men are under pressure in this world too. Some have the strength to rise above the traditions which disempower the women. Some do not and those men are the villains of the piece. Wissam, Nour’s boyfriend, particularly. His desperate and deliberate control is difficult to watch, especially after one graphic scene which will become a plot driver. This very unpleasant event is starkly graphic and frightening. Making it appallingly evident that his hypocrisy has no bounds.
The early part of the film is really funny in places but after this incident the tension of the women’s lives escalates and pulls an audience into a different mindset. “Liberal my ass” This pace change is sensitively handled by Hamoud and her cast and if we have been re-thinking our perception of Palestinian women’s lives, we are abruptly reminded that there is a struggle going on.
The film is beautifully paced and lovingly shot. The framing and shot selection is stellar, sometimes simply locked off at eye level to let the events play out as a character is slumped on the bathroom floor. And in one particular scene shot through a door ajar to give the distance needed to foreground the rational over the emotive. Musically, the film has a similar precision. Never intrusive or manipulative and with some fantastic ambient sounds. There’s a great dance scene to Azza by Yas…I shazammed it and bought it!
IN BETWEEN was such a moving experience for me and I loved my time in the dark with the girls and I hold them in my heart. I wonder about them often and wish them peace.
For more information about Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival visit: http://queerscreen.org.au/mardi-gras-film-festival-2018