In Between, in theaters Friday, is Palestinian director Maysaloun Hamoud’s very first film — and she’s already receiving death threats for it. Earlier this year, Islamists issued a fatwa against her, declaring the film “haram,” or forbidden, for promoting ill morals and debauchery. Why has this particular film — a candid story about women in Palestine from a 36-year-old Palestinian — triggered so much anger, despite earning rave reviews and awards at film festivals worldwide? Because, according to Hamoud, it unveils the hypocrisies of a male-centric Arabic society trapped in repressive, antiquated gender roles that a new generation is desperate to overturn.
The movie follows three young Palestinian women sharing a Tel Aviv apartment and struggling to find work, love, and freedom from their strict environments. Laila (Mouna Hawa), a fearless lawyer with a taste for miniskirts, cigarettes, handsome men, and recreational drugs, is the leader of the trio. Her friend Salma (Sana Jammelieh), a DJ, works in Israeli-run restaurants and bars, where she deals with regular racism. Nour (Shaden Kanboura), a student who wears the veil, has just moved in from the ultrareligious village of Umm al-Fahm. Amid her roommates’ joyous carelessness, she strives to maintain the respectable behavior required by her fiancé, who pressures her to abandon her career aspirations and marry him.
Laila, Salma, and Nour are imprisoned in an infernal huis clos between the walls of the modest apartment. They are Palestinians in an Israeli city, women in a world run by men. Trouble strikes as they attempt to liberate themselves from their situation: Laila’s new lover criticizes her for her bold behavior, partying habits, and chain-smoking; Salma falls in love with a woman; Nour is raped by her fiancé and breaks off the engagement — an almost-impossible feat in some Arabic societies, where honor crime is still widely practiced.
In parts of the Middle East, where a woman’s prime role is to become a wife and a mother, the three women’s rebellion marks something of a deep taboo. And while Laila, Salma, and Nour succeed in shattering some walls, Hamoud ultimately implies that they’re forever trapped, both in their repressive environment and in a city that is not theirs. In advance of the film’s American premiere, Vulture caught up with Hamoud to ask her about the risks and rewards of making such a polarizing, complex film.
Death threats. A fatwa. Are you scared?
I don’t get scared. If these people want to do something against me, they’ll do it. Some people never take action in their lives. I’m doing what I need to do, and I can’t be scared.
Becoming a filmmaker in Palestine is challenging, especially as a woman — the arts scene is very weak, and women are still prohibited from pursuing their own careers. How did you achieve this?
I was born in Galilee in the north and studied Middle Eastern Studies in Jerusalem. I always had a passion for writing and making plays at school. For us as Palestinians, it’s a privilege to think of art as a profession, because we are mostly concerned with surviving. But this desire was stronger than me. I had a surgery that changed my perspective on life and I decided to pursue my dreams and study cinema.
My parents were in Canada. I applied without telling anyone; I studied cinema in Tel Aviv at the Minshar School of Art, which has an activist, avant-garde approach. I met my producer Shlomi Elkabetz there — he was my teacher. I started filming my final project and writing a script for In Between while at school. I graduated in 2011. Then Shlomi and I founded our company, Deux Beaux Garçons Films, with his partner. They are pro-Palestinian, gay Israelis and we are activists in the film industry. We are underdogs.
Your film was partially funded by the state, which was controversial in Palestine.
Palestinians must demand to obtain our rights as citizens. The governmental funds for the movie come from the taxes we pay, and we usually don’t get what we deserve. It’s a very low-budget production anyway, lower than most low budgets in the world. There is no funding for us as artists in Palestine.
How did you come up with these specific characters? Are they based on women you know?
The personalities I created were inspired by the women we know in the Arab world, by a generation that I am part of. I started thinking about the stories I wanted to tell, about representing the issues that are silenced but important to the lives of women. The setup of three characters is interesting, dynamic-wise. I liked the idea of having a complex story that evolves. These stories are also mine – my ideas, my emotions, my community. For example, Laila resembles me. Over 75 percent of Palestinian women living in big cities are single. In terms of Selma’s homosexuality, we haven’t addressed it in cinema at all, though for example, the band Mashrou’ Leila has tackled these issues at a global scale.
As a woman filmmaker, how does your perspective depart from that of the male pioneers of Palestinian and Arabic cinema?
Women’s stories haven’t been told before, because female directors are only starting to make films now. Palestinian cinema is usually very nationalistic — a mirror to the processes in society at every level. After the Nakba [the mass exodus that followed the 1948 Palestine war], and because of the daily realities of the occupation, many filmmakers feel they need to reflect on identity politics before looking at personal stories, and these are men’s movies and men’s stories — where the characters are heroes of the resistance or victims of the occupation.
I want to tell these stories as a Palestinian woman from the inside. Our generation doesn’t have a representation outside of these mainstream narratives. [Now] the narratives are moving away from the conflict. Now we’re in a phase that is more mature, though we’re a small society. We have more women making films, such as Maha Haj and Suha Arraf in Palestine, and Annemarie Jacir, Najwa Najjar, and May Masri in the diaspora. In Palestine, there are even more women filmmakers than in other countries in the region. It’s a positive thing and I hope there’s more. But of 33 Israeli films this year, only two were Palestinian directors. In terms of quantity, our production is still low.
How have the Arab uprisings affected the movie?
I started writing in 2011, at the time of the Arab Spring and its naïveté. This spirit has really affected the movie, because it was a moment where we rose for the need to change, start something new, get away [from] dictatorships, reveal taboos, and get rid of fear. At first, during the revolts, men and women were equal together. But the protests were repressed and women were discriminated against. There is an awareness and deep change happening. Conscience only moves forward. But the outcomes haven’t become clear for the region. And Palestine is still in darkness; it’s very weak. Women have to change the men in leadership, or else the situation will never change.
You’re vocal about your role as a feminist and activist. How has Arab feminism inspired you?
I love the Egyptian activist Nawal El Saadawi, her writings have been very important in my life. As a radical feminist, she is a guru, in the lineage of Simone de Beauvoir. She is a pioneer who has sacrificed for her thought and for the cause. For other women to imagine themselves living a different life, you have to suffer. I’m also inspired by Linda Sarsour in the United States – without women like her, there won’t be a change. And Ahed Tamimi — she grew up within this struggle. She’s a new icon for young women’s struggle, which is excellent.
At the moment, we are in a global regression, but there are movements of change. There are more and more independent, educated women. Many women have worked hard for this, and now we see the difference. I’ve even seen the effect of the movie within Palestine, and abroad where younger audiences are attending. It’s slow but still, I see change.
Your story is very intimate, and yet connects with the political in a powerful way. How do you find that balance?
Cinema is powerful when you can make the personal universal for people to connect with. I’m telling a particular story that represents authentic stories for women in the region, but these issues are the same everywhere else in the world. Everything is political. The air you breathe is political. Feminism is political. When we say we want to change the system and we want women to rule — this is very political. The movie says there needs to be a change, and change is political. In terms of the [film’s] conflict, it’s more social than political, but the political is there — being set in Tel Aviv, it’s [from] the point of view of Palestinians living under the occupation. The ending is open — it’s sweet and sour, because these women are very empowered and free because they refused to compromise, but they are ruined. They chose their lives. They took responsibility and paid the price for it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.