2017 Film Reviews

Review: Maysaloun Hamoud’s ‘Bar Bahar’

Films depicting female friendship are not exactly hard to come by these days, but Arab-Israeli writer-director Maysaloun Hamoud’s debut feature Bar Bahar (In Between) refreshes the genre’s well-known tropes and breathes fresh-air into the depiction of female kinship. Hamoud delivers an unprecedented portrait of the daily struggles faced by Palestinian women living in Israel, depicting a facet of Middle Eastern life that has been strikingly neglected until now. Empowering, bittersweet and rife with poignant socio-political observation, Bar Bahar is an unmissable dramedy that puts women at the heart of a hypocritical world in flux.

Laila (Mouna Hawa) is a fast-talking, chain-smoking powerhouse who works by day as a lawyer and by night as a party-loving force of nature with a penchant for subverting the conventions of both her profession and her gender. She lives in a Tel Aviv apartment with housemate Salma (Sana Jammalieh), a lesbian, tattoo-covered aspiring DJ whose sexuality is still a secret from her Christian family. Both women exercise their independence freely and trip across the ingrained lines of strict hypocrisies that dominate the cultural landscape they inhabit. When their new housemate Nour (Shaden Kanboura) arrives from Umm al-Fahm, her ultra-conservative Muslim upbringing seems at first to be out-of-line with that of her party-loving housemates. Unsurprisingly, Nour’s self-righteous fiancée is concerned that his future wife’s moral compass might falter while under the corruptive influence of her new liberal housemates, and urges her to bring forward the date of their marriage.

At first, it might be hard to imagine a bond forming between the three women as their individual goals and ambitions take them on divergent paths in life. However, beneath their cursory differences, the problems they are faced with are not entirely dissimilar. Laila falls for a man whom she thinks embraces her for all that she is, but quickly discovers that beneath his liberal facade lie the same patriarchal values that she has fought so hard to shirk. While Salma’s family is busy arranging prospective husbands for her to meet, she finds love in doctor Dounia (Ahlam Canaan) and faces the wrath that comes with being honest about her sexuality. Meanwhile, as Nour develops a sense of independence and newfound liberation amongst her housemates in Tel Aviv, she grows ever frustrated with the controlling traditionalism of her husband-to-be. In one of the most viscerally traumatic scenes in cinema this year, Nour discovers, in horrific fashion, her future spouse’s true colours, made all the more resonant through Hamoud’s discrete and sensitive direction.

It is the common enemy of a suffocating and violent patriarchy that bonds these three women together and helps them identify themselves in one another. As the title of the film suggests, these Palestinian women live “in between” two worlds, that of the dominant Jewish Israeli culture and their own traditional Muslim backgrounds. They occupy a liminal space, caught between freedom and repression, an enforced past and a wishful future. Their daily struggles demonstrate the arduous task they face as women trying to navigate through a societal landscape that encompasses drastically different codes of behaviour, entrenched with male chauvinism masquerading itself as moralism.

Although Bar Bahar’s focus is firmly anchored in the daily lives of its three female protagonists, cinematographer Italy Gross’ vérité-style filming ensures the environment around the women is a key part of the drama. While the film does not dwell heavily on the political tensions of the West Bank and Gaza, it certainly does not shy away from challenging preconceived notions of Palestinian life in Israel, subtly tackling issues of discrimination that arise for the Muslim minority. From being fired for speaking Arabic, to being treated with contempt while browsing in a shop, the implications of being Palestinian, and Palestinian women no less, are dealt with in a manner that serves to enlighten rather than pontificate. Gloss’ loose handling of the camera as well as his use of wide frames mirrors the sense of freedom Tel Aviv offers these women, while also serving to magnify their “in between-ness” in an environment that throws mixed societal expectations on them. Ultimately, it is shown that freedom comes with a heavy price and the final scene of the film is striking in its quiet ambiguity, speaking volumes above its characters’ silence.

Maysaloun Hamoud’s cleverly nuanced screenplay harmonises comedy with dramatic undertones, striking a sophisticated balance that is both realistic and hopeful. Hamoud faced her own trials and tribulations making this film, receiving violent backlash including death threats from fundamentalists because of her critique of patriarchal Palestinian society. In almost comedic irony, Hamoud has since been issued with the first Palestinian Fatwa for 70 years. Elsewhere, however, Bar Bahar has been joyously received, with Hamoud receiving the Women in Motion Young Talents award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, as well as three awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival and one at the Toronto Film Festival.

Bar Bahar concentrates on serious, timely issues of gender and identity, but its main takeaway is a sense of boundless hope and joy in its portrayal of female friendship and solidarity. Thanks to a rousing original score by MG Saad, and the magnetic chemistry among the film’s three leads, Bar Bahar brilliantly conveys what it truly means to live “in between” while staying true to yourself despite what society or heritage might demand. Though conflict, prejudice and dangerous tradition play in tandem to keep these women in their place, their strength and courage through one another pushes them to fight for their freedoms and live life on their own terms.

Stephanie Brandhuber (@stephbranded) is a UK-based film, arts and culture writer with a Master’s Degree in Film Studies from King’s College London. She runs the entertainment website The Scruffy Nerf Herder and has a particular love for George Kuchar films.