“In Between” (“Bar Bahr”)
Balancing Tradition and Modern Culture
Arab-Israeli writer-director Maysaloun Hamoud’s feature debut “In Between” is the story of three Palestinian-Israeli women who live split lives. These strong, modern, sexually active women, live independently in the center of Tel Aviv, away from their families and the weight of tradition; they struggle to be true to themselves when confronting the expectations of others.
They women are fluent in Arabic and Hebrew and they dress in a way that makes them completely indistinguishable from their Israeli/Jewish contemporaries ultra-chic lawyer Layla (Mouna Hawa) is a very stylish and seductive lawyer and her flat-mate, Salma (Sana Jammelieh) is a lesbian disc-jockey, and part of a Palestinian cultural underground scene. They party until the wee hours at clubs, drink and do drugs with a set of bohemian friends. Salma adopts a more submissive persona when dutifully visiting her conservative Christian family, who believe that she is a music teacher and continue to invite potential suitors over for dinner. Layla, however, refuses to compromise her lifestyle and remains separate from her family. She ignores the romantic attentions of a Jewish attorney by telling him to “keep our flirtation fun.”
When Muslim graduate student, Nour (Shaden Kanboura) who wears a hijab comes to occupy the third bedroom in Layla and Salma’s apartment, the stage seems to be set for confrontation, but Hamoud instead shows the developing sisterhood between all the roommates. Not only do they share the uneasy status of being Arab-Israelis (and thus “other”) in a predominantly Jewish society, but they also share the problem of finding the right, supportive, understanding romantic partner.
Nour’s hypocritical fiancé, Wissam (Henry Andrawes), doesn’t understand why she wants to continue her studies and go on to work. He believes that eventually she will stay home, run their household, and mother their children. Nour’s perspectives on the world broaden due to her exposure to Layla, Salma, and their friends while Wissam’s continue to narrow. He accuses Nour of being a whore like her roommates, and treats her like one. While working as a bartender, Salma meets an attractive young doctor named Dunya (Ahlam Canaan) and they embark on an affair. Salma loves playing with fire and brings her new girlfriend to her parents’ place when she is supposed to meet yet another potential husband. Layla meets handsome filmmaker Ziad (Mahmoud Shalaby) and sparks fly but Ziad, despite having lived abroad and having a penchant for drink and drugs, can’t completely escape his conservative roots. He’s embarrassed to introduce Layla to his sister who still lives in a village and he criticizes her nonstop cigarette smoking.
Hamoud’s screenplay is a critique of traditional, patriarchal Palestinian society, threatened by modernity, feminine power, and the court of public opinion. We also see the racism of Israeli-Jewish society toward Arabs, from the people on the street who avoid a woman in a headscarf to the snarky manager at the restaurant where Salma works who yells at the kitchen staff for speaking to each other in Arabic.
The chemistry among the three women is excellent and they show the sense of living “in between” and the toll that it takes on their lives as “others”. Cinematographer Itay Gross shows the freedom and vibrancy of the women’s Tel Aviv life in contrast to the dull colors and claustrophobic spaces of village life. The viewers certainly get an update on their ideas about the lifestyle of Palestinian women in Israel. “In Between” focuses on daily life and is a portrait of social change. We see that alongside the traditional male-dominated Arab family structure that there exist independent females who are incredibly cool and part of an uninhibited underground scene. This is a light-hearted dramedy of girl power.
Certainly the women’s freedom comes at a price, but despite some dark and dramatic moments, none of the three young women looks likely to go back to a traditional life however uncomfortable it can be to live “in between” tradition and modernity. The opening disco sequence is a challenge to straight society.
Salma and Layla have minds of their own don’t bat an eye over the arrival of a fully covered Islamic Nour who has come to live with them. Despite the prejudice she might initially incite, she’s a woman in transition, just on the brink of liberating herself. In one of the film’s most shocking moments, her arrogant fiancé just can’t understand why she wants to study and work instead of keeping house for him and their future children and makes an intense gesture of disrespect that sets off a compassionate display of solidarity.
Hamoud tackles almost all the taboos of Arab Israeli society: drugs, alcohol, and homosexuality. Salma is rejected by her Christian family for being a lesbian, while Leila leaves her boyfriend when she discovers he is more conservative than he claims. Nour ultimately rebels against her family and traditions by leaving her religious fiancé Wissam after he rapes her. The municipality of the Muslim village Umm am-Fahm has issued a statement condemning the film as being “without the slightest element of truth” and barring it from being screened there and Hamoud as well as her actresses have received death threats.
“Bar Bahar” literally meaning “land and sea” in Arabic and translates as “neither here, nor there” in Hebrew. I understand that Hamoud chose to set the film in Tel Aviv that is regarded the most tolerant and liberal city in Israel to make a point that even there racism against Arabs is prevalent.