Thursday 21 September 2017

Middleness: "In Between"

Maysaloun Hamoud's In Between begins with an illuminating if jolting contrast. A beauty-shop elder instructs a young Palestinian woman to keep her mouth shut and her body waxed if she hopes to attract and keep a man; cue opening title, then an abrupt cut to two other young Palestinian women - two flatmates, aspirant DJ Salma (Sana Jammelieh) and lawyer Leila (Mouna Hawa) - hitting the Tel Aviv bar scene as hard as they possibly can. No such strictures for them. This city, we soon grasp, is another where the old world meets the new: next morning, Salma is roused from hungover slumber by a phone call from her mother, insisting she cover up her tattoos and take out her piercings before she meets with the prospective spouse her parents have lined up for her, little knowing their daughter's sexual preferences reside on the other side of the Gaza Strip. If Salma and Leila are only too keen to break or circumnavigate the rules, their new housemate abides by them religiously. Meek and headscarved Noor (Shaden Kanboura) goes out of her way to please her deeply conservative fiance - but even she seems inclined to turn an ear to her horny housemates' doors and bust a move to their records when nobody else is watching.

Part of the freshness of Hamoud's debut - much-garlanded on the festival circuit - lies in encountering a Middle Eastern film that isn't unduly burdened by the politics of the region. It's true that Salma quits her kitchen job after she's told that her speaking Arabic alienates the clientele, and the girls' status as Arabs in the Israeli capital doubtless contributes to their sense of being neither here nor there. Yet Hamoud, upon this first glance, appears to be less the daughter of Arafat than a sister to Lena Dunham: she's chiefly interested in her heroines as romantic and sexual adventuresses, not as prisoners or casualties of war. For much of its running time, In Between presents as a study of twentysomething women meeting in the middle. Salma and Leila look upon Noor as almost an alien creature when she first shuffles across their threshold, every last inch of her body covered. Yet they will be there for her after her fiance, a zealot so uptight he won't even shake an unmarried woman's hand, crosses a red line - and it's here that what was previously a genial portrait of a generation gives rise to something as concrete and predetermined as a plot.

My feeling is that In Between loses some of its breeziness with that redirection, and its second half flirts with exactly the kind of soapy, issue-led melodrama Hamoud's savvy-hip characters sneer at in an early scene. Salma's trip to her parents' home in the suburbs is very Girls - during a slyly satiric evening meal, one buxom friend of the family boasts that her (fully grown) fiance has never once moved out of his parents' place - but this comic episode is immediately juxtaposed by the altogether sadder sight of our heroine's own guardians taking violently against the presence of their child's (female) lover. Sharp, vivid playing yanks us out of any dead spots, however, and Hamoun has an eye for images that crystallise the social and generational divides, and just where they've left her characters: consider the simple camera movement that removes us from Noor hastening to prepare supper to the carefree men sitting around in the next room, smoking and chatting among themselves, or the early set-up that places Salma at the dead centre of the screen, albeit with her overbearing father on one side of her, and a pretty useless suitor on the other - in between, yet again.

In Between opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow, ahead of its DVD release on November 13.   

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