JIFF Review: In Between

This year’s Jewish Film Festival spreads its scope to include the experiences of Palestinian women in contemporary Tel Aviv, who let  their hair down both literally and figuratively, in the groundbreaking In Between.

The story centres on three women who, on varying levels, are challenging the expectations forced on them by society. Their attempts to find their own identity and be true to themselves often flies in the face of these expectations, which in the case of all three women, creates a great deal of upheaval.

First there is Leila (Mouna Hawa), a criminal lawyer by profession. She wears makeup, smokes cigarettes publicly (and dope privately), drinks alcohol and has an active love life. With a long mane of hair, and tight, revealing outfits, she cuts a striking figure in the clubs of Tel Aviv. But, she’s not the kind of girl you take home to meet mother, which is causing a rift with current boyfriend Ziad (Mahmoud Shalaby).

Her flatmate Salma (Sana Jammelieh), is having an even more tumultuous time.  A budding DJ, which in itself is a challenge to make a living out of and be taken seriously at, Salma is also gay. Something she has to keep a secret from her family and most of those around her.

Making an unexpected appearance at their apartment is Noor (Shaden Kanboura), a devout muslim who would never go out in public without her hijab tightly fastened and fully wrapped in a modest abaya cloak. She’s a diligent student and is soon to enter into a marriage which has been arranged by her family. In the opening scene we see how she has been brought up to please her man and forego any pleasure for herself. Her path in life is a very traditional, subservient one.

At first Noor’s presence in Leila and Salma’s home is like watching oil separate from water, but gradually the women from opposing worlds find areas in which they bond and support each other, especially as they find resistance, rejection and hostility from those that supposedly love them.

This is a fascinating look at modern day Tel Aviv and its clash of progressive attitudes and traditional customs. It’s also a very compelling portrayal of female empowerment.      

Crucially it was written and directed by a woman, Maysaloun Hamoud , a Hungarian born Palestinian . This is her feature debut, and it’s a very impressive one. She shows great generosity towards the vivid, sympathetic characters she’s created and has structured a story brimming with drama and social commentary without ever feeling schematic.

She’s also coaxed great performances from her cast, with Kanboura and Hawa winning Best Actress and Supporting Actress respectively at this year’s Ophirs, the Israeli Film Academy Awards, where it was nominated in 12 categories.

Isabelle Huppert said  “the women that are portrayed in this film are the true heroines of our age.”

Not everyone’s a fan, a fatwa has been issued against the director, and the film has been declared haram in the town where Noor’s character comes from.

I, however, am issuing In Between with an admiring ✭✭✭✭  

In Between is currently screening at the Jewish International Film Festival

Richard Leathem @dickiegee