By Nosheen Iqbal
28 September 2017
The freedom to love who you want or live how you like does not come, says Maysaloun Hamoud, without consequence. The Palestinian film-maker has caused a sensation with her debut feature In Between, the story of three young Arab women living together in Tel Aviv, by determinedly breaking the stereotype of what that reality is and what its consequences look like on screen.
Tel Aviv like it is … In Between. Photograph: Yaniv Berman
Salma, Laila and Nour – the sullen lesbian DJ, the sexy criminal lawyer and the strait-laced Hijabi student – might sound like the setup of a joke without a punch line, but theirs is a fresh, little-seen take on breaking rules and taking risks in the underground party scene of their city.
“When the movie was released in Israel and Palestine, it was like a bomb for both sides,” says Hamoud, her hands flicking for emphasis. “There were walkouts. It was a shock to the system for Palestinian society, about rebelling from the mainstream, and people feeling shame about themselves. But a lot of people – women, gay people, alternative scenes – were just so pleased it represented them.”
Shot in just 26 days and premiered at Toronto film festival the same year, In Between’s acclaim on the festival circuit was almost assured from the off. The film has been boycotted back home, decreed haram by religious leaders and earned Hamoud the first fatwa to be issued in Palestine since 1948. It has been buoyed by controversy – “The mess was good publicity,” Hamoud admits – over its presentation of Muslim and Christian Arab women in spiky, subversive roles. But that hype – as fun as it is – also undermines Hamoud’s obvious talent: the film is compelling because it’s so skilfully understated, and the cast (about 90% of whom were in front of a camera for the first time) are so good. Few scenes seem more seductive in films than the ones that casually nail a universal truth on youth or lust – or both – in an original way and In Between seems built on them.
Accessorised by sunglasses, cigarettes and coffee, Hamoud is sharp company. We meet on a north London canal side on a crisp autumn morning, overlooking the ducks and houseboats, which she finds kookily quaint. It is a surprise to her that she is still asked – twice the night before, once at a screening Q&A and then on NewsNight – whether she expected her film to resonate.
“Western audiences seem to want to feel they are better, that their hopes and dreams are unique and different and authentic to ours,” she says. “It is not true. We are human beings with the same stories, same dilemmas, we have the same feelings. Every big city has the underground culture I show – we hear the same music, there are the same drugs, in each country. The film is successful all over the world because people can relate.”
She buzzes with stories of young people who have contacted her since watching the film. It’s worth all the stick. “I was criticised for taking Israeli government funding to make it. But that money is ours, we should take more. We don’t take what we deserve.” The main problem for her critics, she thinks, is that she, and her three female characters in the film, won’t be quiet or subdued. “Feminism is political because whoever is in charge has a position of power. When you try to change the status quo, and let the women lead and challenge male authority, of course it is fucking political in society. But I want to show a different way to be, of what a Palestinian woman looks like, and to break the victim ideal.”
The daughter of Communist Palestinian parents who was born and largely grew up in Budapest, Hungary before heading to university in Jerusalem for Middle Eastern studies, Hamoud knows she comes from a place of privilege. “Art is about challenging and changing,” she says, “and I’m lucky to do it.” Her own life was flipped after “a dramatic health issue”, after which she dropped out of her course and went to Tel Aviv to study cinema. Her passion for 90s Hollywood films and B-movies finally seems to be paying off; In Between has won awards at the Toronto, San Sebastian, Haifa and Cannes film festivals. It opened on seven screens across Britain on Friday, and is showing at 28 screens this week, with more cinemas picking it up nationwide. Fans queued in lines snaking around the ICA for the screening hosted there and Hamoud is already working on the second film of an In Between trilogy.
“The community I show in the film has developed in the last 10 years – and I’m proud of it,” she says. “The generation younger than us has more freedom than I had, and I wanted to bring that fresh blood to Arab cinema. I just captured life.”