As evidenced by the violent protests currently raging in Iran, tensions between modernity and tradition remain all too pressing in the Middle East. Thus, In Between arrives at an apt moment in time, dramatizing that ongoing clash with both sensitivity and skill. The feature debut of writer/director Maysaloun Hamoud, it’s an affecting work that refuses to shy away from the vileness of ingrained Islamic intolerance, all of which, in this case, is targeted at women—making the film something like a wrenching live-action companion piece to last year’s superlative animated effort, The Breadwinner.
Hamoud’s story concerns two longtime Palestinian roommates, Laila (Mouna Hawa) and Salma (Sana Jammalieh), whose lives in Tel Aviv are anything but conventional. Both proudly single, they spend their late nights carousing in bars and clubs with men, drinking and smoking to their heart’s content, and their mornings recovering from the painful hangovers created by the prior evening’s revelry. They are, from a Western perspective, no different than millions of likeminded twentysomethings. Yet to many in their religiously-minded culture, they’re “impure,” having forsaken their pious duty to behave like “whores”—an attitude that exists despite the fact that Laila is a successful lawyer, and is compounded by Salma’s multiple facial piercings and romantic preference (which is only slowly revealed by the proceedings) for women over men.
Laila and Salma’s independence makes them outcasts, albeit of a minor variety, since In Between depicts them living contentedly—if not altogether stably—in a metropolitan environment populated by similarly iconoclastic friends. The more close-minded world is always right outside their door, however, and soon creeps inside their apartment when Nour (Shaden Kanboura), a friend of Salma’s cousin, moves in with them. A computer science student who wears a headscarf and is engaged to devout Wissam (Henry Andrawes), Nour is an interloper of sorts into their carefree enclave. Hamoud, though, is careful not to overplay the friction generated by this straitlaced-versus-wild situation; rather, the director consistently presents her protagonists in three dimensions, with their reticence and disapproval of each other coming across as more muted than severe.
Though killjoy Nour seems destined to become a thorn in uninhibited Laila and Salma’s side, it’s external figures who soon prove most troublesome. That’s clearest in Nour’s case, considering that Wissam makes plain from the get-go that he’s unhappy with his wife’s urban living conditions, and is determined to dictate his wife-to-be’s present and future circumstances. This entails doing his best to coerce Nour to push up their wedding date, as well as to move to an apartment outside chaotic Tel Aviv—and, specifically, away from Laila and Salma, whom he views as filthy heretics apt to corrupt his beloved. Wissam is a soft-spoken misogynist, one who affects an air of understanding and compassion while nevertheless laying down the law for his companion, and Andrawes embodies him as a canny bully who swaddles his entitled arrogance in sweet-talking sensitivity.
Laila and Salma are far more willful than Nour, but In Between soon portrays them as equally at the mercy of bigoted forces beyond their control.
For Salma, an aspiring DJ who also bartends, problems arise courtesy of her parents, who tsk-tsk her all-black outfits and pierced jewelry, and have her return home to be wooed by suitors over family dinners—including an unpleasant man who brags about the thousands of chickens he supplies to supermarkets, and then offers Salma a piece of torn grapefruit in a gesture that’s so awkward as to elicit shivers. Laila, meanwhile, finds her amorous prospects greatly improved when a friend introduces her to his roommate, Ziad (Mahmood Shalabi), who’s intoxicated by not only Laila’s beauty, but also by her radiant self-assurance, which is felt in everything from a casual conversation with a friend on the street about concert tickets (as she dismisses the cars honking at her for holding up traffic), to a chat with a Jewish legal colleague who unrealistically wants to date her.
Despite Laila falling head over heels for Ziad, In Between offers up few men who are genuinely progressive. Hamoud’s critique of Islamic sexism is made without didacticism, and flows naturally from her well-plotted action—and, moreover, is enhanced by her sterling direction. Her handheld cinematography provides intimacy without herky-jerky gimmickry, and her preference for prolonged images of character’s faces, often in silence, gives her leads ample opportunity to express a range of multifaceted emotional reactions within a single shot. Most impressive of all is her handling of the material’s horrifying centerpiece, the specifics of which are not to be spoiled here. In that bracing sequence, the filmmaker employs two medium shots in which one seated character’s face is visible in the frame while another standing person’s head is obscured, thereby visualizing the imbalanced power dynamics at the heart of Palestinian male-female relations. Then, in a long master shot, she gazes unblinkingly at Islamic masculine monstrousness, displaying it—and the powerlessness it seeks to inspire in others—in all its unvarnished ugliness.
In Between concludes with more nastiness perpetrated by male characters, even as it makes sure—during a late, beautifully handled confrontation between Nour, Wissam and Nour’s father—to avoid painting in overly broad brushstrokes. Hamoud recognizes that sermons are too one-note to be taken seriously, and that no matter how deeply hatred and oppression are woven into a society’s fabric, there remain noble individuals unwilling to embrace it at the expense of their loved ones.
Which isn’t to say, alas, that In Between functions as an uplifting saga about triumphing over adversity. Through the plight of Laila, Salma and Nour, Hamoud contends that female solidarity is the best means of combatting, or at least surviving, toxic masculine tyranny, and that defiance—alone, and together—is the only rational response to systems of subjugation. Still, such rebelliousness, no matter how justified, comes with a price, here beautifully evoked by a quiet final shot of the three women sitting alone on a balcony outside a house party, each of them set adrift—and apart—by their desire to simply be themselves.