Navigating Spaces Off the Map

Sana Jammelieh, Shaden Kanboura, and Mouna Hawa in Maysaloun Hamoud “In Between.” | FILM MOVEMENT

The terrific queer-themed Israeli film “In Between” is writer/ director Maysaloun Hamoud’s absorbing drama about three Palestinian women living together in Tel Aviv. Leila (Mouna Hawa) is a lawyer. Her roommate Salma (Sana Jammelieh) is a closeted lesbian who slowly acts on her attraction to Dunya (Ahlam Canaan). These women like to have fun, drinking and doing drugs with their gay and straight friends. When Nour (Shaden Kanboura), a Muslim student studying computer science, moves into the apartment, the women become more supportive of one another — especially when Nour’s fiancé Wissam (Henry Andrawes) behaves badly.

As Arabs living in Israel, these women are described as “in between” — “neither here nor there.” Hamoud, who writes from experience, spoke with Gay City News about her film.

Maysaloun Hamoud offers feminist take on Arab lives in Tel Aviv

GARY M. KRAMER: What can you say about being “in between?”

MAYSALOUN HAMOUD: I think there is a lot of “in betweens” — this feeling is something everyone in the world shares. My “in between” is between traditional rules of society and the world which is supposed to be liberal and open minded and all those things you wish for in your normal life.

But in reality, I am outside, because I am Palestinian, not Jewish, so I am always a second-class citizen [in Israel].

GMK: What I see as the strength of your film is that you give the women agency. How did you conceive of the film, these characters, and their relationships and storylines?

MH: I spent three years working on the script. I myself lived this life, and I wanted to capture all of the dynamics that occur between flat mates. Each character is in a different stage of liberation and they are all from different backgrounds. I tried in my writing to maximize that dynamic in a dramatic way.

GMK: Many of the characters in the film have to live a lie or repress their true natures. What decisions did you make regarding how these women present themselves versus who they really are?

MH: I lived a dual life always, but now after the movie I have to admit I cannot. I liberated myself through the movie. I don’t need to live a dual life. It is something so strong in our being, especially as a woman, that you have to act not in your truth because of society’s rules. It’s so tough to be in this mindset that you always have to lie, but this is the price you pay for your journey of liberation.

GMK: What influenced you that you adopted a feminist perspective?

MH: I got it not from my progressive family, but from my life experience. I saw things that did not seem logical to me: Why can boys go out and I have to be home before sunset? It started from a feeling from injustice. My brother grew up to be a man in a society, where he could do things his sister was not allowed to do. So it started from a personal perspective. But then I was exposed to feminist educators and radicals. From those seeds, I developed that mindset.

GMK: I love the opening scene of the cosmetician reinforcing gender roles. Can you talk about how “In Between” breaks stereotypes?

MH: I wanted to play with my audience and to give them the feeling that they think that they know how women are supposed to be. I think it’s a lesson for viewers to break stereotypes, even ones that they don’t know they have. This is the feeling the Western eye and the Israeli eye have: they think they know us, but it is always a stereotypical image, not the real thing. That’s the surprise you get from the film. Then you ask questions about that.

GMK: Can you talk about your film being part of an exciting Arab New Wave?

MH: More movies from the Arab world are telling stories from different point of views. We are talking about the same subject with a feminist approach. This wave started after the Arab Spring, and it is an immediate link to the spirit of the Arab Spring and freedom, change, and anti-patriarchy. All these directors — women and men — are in exile from their countries to have a chance to live after they made a strong movie that questions the system around them. I am able to stay where I live in Israel, but the feeling of protection is greater than in the Arab country.

GMK: The film is very progressive in terms of its treatment of women and lesbianism. A fatwa was issued because of your film. Can you discuss the reaction the film got and what that meant?

MH: The fatwa was very normal because if it had not happened that would have been strange. When you criticize society — which is men as the patriarchy — the actions they take when you criticize them has to be dramatic. They acted as we expected, but a bit more.

The fatwa was weird. Since 1948, this [particular] committee of Islam didn’t attack anything until the movie came out. There are a lot of issues, and you are going to give a fatwa for a movie? But I understand where it came from. I have to say that after a while, the opposite voices — the seculars, empowering women organizations, the gay community — raised their voices very loud and resisted that wave of hate and violent speech.

IN BETWEEN | Directed by Maysaloun Hamoud | Film Movement | Opens Jan. 5 | Landmark Sunshine Cinema, 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves. |