Mouna Hawa, Sana Jammelieh, Shaden Kanboura, Mahmud Shalaby
Select theaters January 5
It’s tough to be a woman anywhere (except maybe Themyscira), but In Between, an impassioned debut feature written and directed by Maysaloun Hamoud, argues that it’s especially difficult to be a Palestinian woman in Tel Aviv. At first, the film appears to be a simple culture-clash comedy, as two pot-smoking, hard-partying friends discover that their new roommate—the previous tenant’s cousin, about whom they knew nothing else—is a hijab-clad traditionalist. That potential source of friction quickly dissipates, however, to be replaced by the trio’s individual battles against patriarchal bullshit. Successful lawyer Leila (Mouna Hawa) meets a seemingly great guy, Ziad (Mahmud Shalaby), then discovers that he secretly harbors antiquated ideas about femininity. Aspiring DJ Salma (Sana Jammelieh) can’t tell her conservative family that she’s in love with another woman (Ashlam Canaan). And Noor (Shaden Kanboura), the new roommate, has to deal with a fiancé, Wissam (Henry Andrawes), who won’t tolerate even the slightest deviation from what he considers to be proper behavior, even though his own behavior is abominable.
A Hollywood version of this story would surely have the three women unite in a common cause. (Think 9 To 5, which even features a Noor equivalent in Jane Fonda’s mousy new hire.) Hamoud takes a different approach, essentially crafting three separate stories that address a common theme. Despite inhabiting the same living space, Leila, Salma and Noor rarely interact; In Between mostly follows them separately, with occasional Girls-style interludes to lighten things up a bit (e.g., Leila coming home to find Noor uninhibitedly dancing to a pop tune). Trouble is, this creates a hefty structural imbalance, implicitly equating situations that are worlds apart in terms of severity. Once Noor gets assaulted by her fiancé, it’s hard to get too worked up about Ziad insisting that Leila quit smoking, even though his reasoning (smoking isn’t ladylike) is absurd. Leila and Salma do team up to help Noor get out of her impending marriage, but the way that their cute sting operation gets juxtaposed with everyday sexism still winds up seeming to trivialize rape.
Then again, maybe Hamoud means to suggest that all of these offenses exist on a continuum—that the sort of man who tells a woman to quit smoking often goes on to commit violence against women. Or maybe it’s simply unproductive to draw such distinctions (a lesson that Matt Damon has hopefully learned by now). Wrong is wrong, regardless of degree. Still, In Between suffers when cross-cutting among its three similar yet disparate storylines, and is strongest during moments that see righteous anger get complicated by human nature. Following the rape, Leila finds Noor in a heap on the bathroom floor, clearly traumatized, and rushes to her aid… but not until after she runs to the toilet and vomits, because she’s nearly fall-down drunk after a night of clubbing. That sort of unexpected yet credible detail keeps the film from feeling overly schematic, even though its characters are somewhat two-dimensional (in spite of fine work from all three lead actors) and its narratives are slightly undernourished (would Salma really bring her new girlfriend to her family’s house and make out with her where they might be seen? Unlikely).
To make matters more stressful still, our heroes must also contend with being ethnic/religious minorities; Tel Aviv is about 92 percent Jewish, and even Leila and Salma, who dress exactly like all the other young women in town, constantly receive looks of suspicion and disdain while just walking around, minding their own business. (Salma, who works in the restaurant kitchen, gets chewed out by the manager for speaking Arabic: “It’s unpleasant for the customers who just want to enjoy their meal.”) Merely existing in this city, as themselves, is an ordeal for these three. At this watershed moment, it’s a potent reminder: #ThemToo.