What to Push and When to Push It: Palestinian Director Maysaloun Hamoud on 'In Between'

Photo: Yaniv_Berman (Courtesy of PeccadilloPictures)

In Between emits an idealistic spirit to create unity, and Hamoud equally looks towards feminism as a unifying framework for the contemporary world.

Art Is a Privilege

Palestinian writer-director and DJ Maysaloun Hamoud is the first filmmaker to be subjected to a Fatwa in Palestine since 1948. The reason? Her feature directorial debut, In Between (Bah Bahar, 2017). By exposing Palestinian cinema to images of alcohol, drugs, and homosexuality, Hamoud's motivations are indisputably a provocation. Yet her film is imbued with the soul of its author in the form of provocative cinema that conforms to her ideas of the responsibilities of an artist towards her society and her belief that In Between is a “means of activism".

In Between (Bar Bahar)

Director: Maysaloun Hamoud
Cast: Mouna Hawa, Sana Jammelieh, Shaden Kanboura
Year: 2016

The film follows the lives of three strong, independent-minded Israeli-Palestinian women sharing an apartment in Tel Aviv. Away from the constraints of their families and enforced tradition, they find themselves 'in-between' the free and unfettered lives they're aspiring to lead, and the restrictions still imposed on them by a blinkered society.

Hamoud is a filmmaker who understands the influential or transformative power of the filmic medium. “Art has the power to change minds, and changing reality starts with the changing of minds," she explains. “If I could change one person's thinking, then I have achieved, and I believe the movie has touched and made a lot of changes in the minds of the people that have seen it." Yet what is most striking about the film is the absence of romanticisation, Hamoud imbuing her 'in-between' characters with a sadness that offsets an inspirational presence through resilient determination. Built around the idea of solidarity, the film emits an idealistic spirit of sweeping aside the in-between space to create unity, and Hamoud equally looks towards feminism as a unifying framework for the contemporary world. “I don't think feminism is a woman's subject, it's a subject that all of us need to be a part of."

In conversation with PopMatters, the filmmaker discusses her creative journey and thoughts on the filmmaking process, echoing Hitchcock's belief in the emphasis on the script. She also reflects on the intimate connection between art and reality, the responsibilities of the artist, and the individual and collective identity of the cinema.

Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Let me say that in my position as a Palestinian living in Israel, your thoughts are basically to survive. Art is a privilege; we know that. It's a fantasy that remains one for a lot of people, but deep inside since kindergarten, I knew this field was fascinating.

I remember that I was writing different things, but I never thought about it as something serious that would be part of my life. Then I passed a dramatic turning point that brought me to the extreme, actually to the end: a clinical death during surgery. Physically and metaphysically it closed a circle of life and opened a new one. My doctor told me: “You have to remember that you don't come back without a purpose, and I can tell you that some soul loves you so much. I don't know, maybe up, maybe down, but that soul kept you here, so do something with that because getting a new life is not to be taken for granted." It was like a phrase from a movie [laughs], exactly like that.

Then when I recovered a little, the first thing I did was search for where I could study cinema. I always think it chose me more than I chose it, like it was always there: [Clicks fingers] 'We know your purpose. You have a mission.' Since I decided inside of myself that I wanted to be a filmmaker and because I am a woman, and I am Palestinian, I needed to not be an average one. For this purpose you have to work so hard, to not compromise and to be a perfectionist. I think I chose a craziness that until now has been worth it.

What was the genesis of In Between?

When I started to write the idea, not even the script, it started with the characters, without even knowing what's going to happen -- just which characters voices were interesting to me. It actually started as escapism from a big failure -- my final project at film school -- but not because of me [laughs]. It was the death of one of our closest friends the day before shooting. It was my first lesson as a director, not just in the artistic field, but in the vision and the decisions. Instead of saying: “Okay, we will put it off" I said: “No, we spent a lot of money, and we need to shoot."

That decision was so wrong. It was a mess and I destroyed all of the material from that shoot. Then I thought: I don't care, I have three shorts that I like. Okay I will find out what I want to do. It was a frustrating time and I started to just write characters, and at that time the Arab Spring began, and it just fitted into the spirit of what I wanted for those characters. Slowly I understood I wanted to speak about freedom, especially about women's freedom.

I've been told by filmmakers that it is in the edit that you discover your film. How has the experience of your feature debut influenced how you perceive the process, from script on through to the edit?

I always say that the script is the suggestion for the movie, it's not the movie, and each stage of the process has its own magic. Of course, a lot of filmmakers hate the writing stage because it's you on your own, there's no help. I myself, I love this stage. Why? First of all, it comes easily because I always grow, and as I said I was always writing something. But I believe that the real creation is in that specific moment, where something you wrote, a world you created, could be in front of a huge number of eyes. It's fascinating, it's just magical.

With any movie, the script is that most important thing. The script is the suggestion, but the process is to create it, and that process will be easier if you have a good script. In the editing, you come with all of the raw material and this stage of the work is to shape that material. Of course, each part is crucial, but everything starts with the script. If you go to the movies and you say it was nicely shot, and there are movies like this, but these are not good movies. When you leave the cinema and you say: “Wow, that's a good one", then that's when the script, the editing and the directing were all good.

Is the measure of the merit of a film whether it stays in your gut, your mind and your heart?

Exactly, and you have to always be connected to your senses.

On the subject of the sensory, the music makes a bold impression with an energy of protest that echoes the resilient and determined spirit of the characters.

Yeah, it comes to you in a peaceful demonstration. For me as someone who loves music, and I am also a DJ, I have a soundtrack for every minute I am awake. So especially if you live in, let me call it 'the underground' as our lives are, or are a part of, music shows and underground ones are part of our lives.

The sounds I put in this movie are a reflection of the sounds that we hear in our daily life, in those places, and it was important for me to also include the diversity of the musicians that you can hear. At the beginning of the movie is the Palestinian hip-hop band called DAM. The phrase 'DAM' is kind of a reference to 'forever'. DAM are famous all over, and you'll have to listen to them sometime if you like hip-hop and protest music.

Then at the same time you have Tiny Fingers, who are Israeli, and it's their music in the final scene at the house party. Also, do you know Yasmine Hamdan? She is a Lebanese singer. She lives in Paris and she and Zeib Hamdan a friend from Lebanon, were actually the first reference for alternative Arab music in the late '90s (through their first album Bater (1999), as the duo Soapkills). She's amazing and she gave us the rights to the song "Azza", which Universal Studios own the rights to. She and her producer who is also Madonna's producer loved the movie and they gave us the track as a gift, and it has apparently become the hymn of the movie.

Another important story of the music is that the musician who made the original score, we cannot credit him by his name because he is from a country in the Middle East that we don't have a peace with. So until now, people search for M.G Saad, who doesn't exist, which is also reflective of our reality.

This musical diversity you depict is surely a sign of how creativity creates unifying bonds.

But all of them are underground and are very clearly defined as non-zionists. Every Israeli that took part in the process of the movie are from our side. The reality is it's a mixed scene and in Tel Aviv, it's a Jewish-Palestinian scene. The non-zionist Jews are very close to us, we are like a family, we are all activists. So I believe the movie is another means of activism.

While you're using the cinematic voice to impact your society, on the other side, there are films that seek to entertain. Your closing point leads me to consider the opinion that film and cinema are separate from one another.

As artists, I believe you have a responsibility. As you said there is a determined view, and okay, everything has its own space. If you are commercial and you want to make money, then okay everything is cool, but you cannot call yourself an artist -- you are an entertainer. When you want to call yourself an artist, or more importantly when you consider yourself an artist, then you have a responsibility toward society and the world that you are a part of.

I tried to make a trap for the audience because I knew that I have to bring them in with thoughts that they are going to see a funny and colourful movie. There's a phrase called the 'bitter candy' -- you thought it was sweet and when you start to crunch comes this bitterness. I think we achieved something in that way by the look and the appeal, and when the audience is attached to the film, they are yours, and you can do what you want in their minds.

Although by subverting expectations, some of your audience is inherently not going to go along with you.

If you do it well, I believe they will.

That they will always follow along with you?

Yes, because of humanity. Friendly quests are similar, and everywhere our feelings and buttons are the same. You just need to know what to push and when to push it.

Earlier you spoke of cinema being a privilege, but in the West, I question whether we've lost touch with this sense of privilege. Also, if you look towards film criticism, the internet has democratised it to a point that anyone can write about film, which has diminished criticism as a privileged profession. More broadly I question whether the last time cinema truly mattered was in the '60s and '70s. In a piece I wrote for Medium, I said: “It is here in the Middle East that doubts as to whether cinema is as culturally significant as it was in the sixties and seventies, but more importantly engaged with on the same level are banished."

I agree with you totally. But it is not just the Middle East. You have Far East cinema, Latin cinema, and you have all those regions that are not privileged and they have stories to tell that have something to say, and still have a very good cinema.

If you are talking about the region, look how cinema and reality is totally mixed. Ziad Doueiri, the Lebanese director, was arrested at the airport in Beirut when he came back from Venice after his film The Insult (2017) won the prize for Best Actor (Kamel El Basha). He's Lebanese but he lives in the United States, and he actually worked with Tarantino, and because he has an American passport he could come to Israel and shoot his last movie there, The Attack (2012). Lebanon didn't do anything about it and four years passed, and when he came back from Venice they wanted to show the whole world that they can punish their citizens, even when they win prizes at world cinema festivals. They put him in jail for two days and after that they released him. You can see how cinema and reality are mixed.

Does the conflict emerge as a consequence of the understanding that cinema has the power to change minds?

Yeah, and I love his work because he's not afraid to put the issues [out] that no one wants to talk about on screen. He put the Lebanese-Palestinian topic at the forefront (West Beirut, 1998), which no one wants to talk about because the history of Lebanon is a bloody story. But he's not afraid to tell these stories and not everyone will be happy to see or to hear it because they will see themselves as a bad guy.

Let me say that I hate the phrases 'good guys' and 'bad guys' because they simplify a reality that is more complex. We can say that it shows how decisions that people took in a certain time effected many people, creating very sad and bloody events. So I appreciate that he has the courage to put this story at the front of the stage, and he's always inspiring for me.

We have a fixed notion of time and place for the beginnings of cinema, yet Palestinian cinema is experiencing its own beginnings. This challenges the perception of cinema as a single geographical entity with a single timeline.

It is a collective experience and each one is connected to different places. I love Kubrick and Ken Loach... Wow, I really love Ken Loach, and you can feel him in my movie in the way the criticism of society is presented with a lot of humour. This is Ken Loach and you can also see references to Almodovar. The women are powerful, the dialogue has a lot of colour -- it's Almodovar. So it's mixed from a lot of the cinemas that I love.

The final shot is, to my mind, a powerful image of youth trying to lay claim to a future they desire, one not beholden to tradition or the desire of their elders. Whereas often the outsider is romanticised, shown as heroic or glamorous. In Between captures the pain and sadness of this archetype that is so often missing.

The last shot of the last scene puts all that we just passed through in that moment, where the three become one woman. These three characters are fighters because they didn't compromise themselves, and it is very empowering. But at the same time, you cannot escape from the sadness that is inside of it, because that freedom created a lot, and there is no freedom without a price.

The journey of life is in many ways the process of finding a sense of belonging, but not by way of changing who we individually are. I would argue In Between is connected to this idea.

Yeah, the dynamic of the girls is also very respectful. In the beginning it was a shock to one another, but when those different backgrounds and different stages of state of minds meet one another, when they see and feel that each has her own space and respects the other in their own castle, which is a small apartment where they can feel their small freedom inside.

I think it's a very strong message that says we can accept the differences between one another. We don't need to be the same, we can be different and still respect one another, and not obligate someone to be as we are. Why do we need to all be the same?

Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl, he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before." Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?

After the process of five years working, you cannot be the same. You have passed through a lot of crisis that you learned a lot from, and you communicate with a huge amount of people, and you have to know how to communicate with each of them to bring out their best. So you have to know psychology, and you have to know diplomacy. Everyone has their own ego and you have to know how to deal with that because it is kind of like material for a bomb [laughs]. It happens! A lot of productions have bombs in the process. [Taps table repeatedly]

I win because of the karma of the movie, which is love. This movie is based on love and the closeness for this place, for my society and the people that I love, who I want to be better for themselves and for the next generation. When you do something with a lot of love, with a lot of consideration and care, I think it gives back to you, and the movie gives us a lot.

In Between is released theatrically in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures.

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