In Between: Your Palestinian identity and your Israeli-funded film

Palestinian director Maysaloun Hamoud is an Arab citizen of Israel, born in Budapest in 1982. She currently lives in the east Mediterranean city of Jaffa, which lies in the southern part of Tel Aviv, 55 km away from Jerusalem.

Maysaloun is a unique name. When researching its origins, I found that Maysaloun literally means an area where there is a permanent running water source. It was also the site of the famous Battle of Maysalun in 1920, when French forces set out from Lebanon to seize the city of Damascus and were met by Syrian General Yusuf al-Azma. The better-equipped French troops, led by General Mariano Goybet, defeated Azma, who was killed in action. There is also a village close to Jenin in Palestine called Maythaloun.

Such a name, loaded with historical and geographical significance, conjures questions about the director’s identity. Is she a Palestinian not born inside of Palestine? And when we say the inside of Palestine, which Palestine are we referring to? The West Bank territories? Gaza? Israel? Is that distinction even necessary? What does this name, deeply-rooted in Levantine heritage, mean today?

These questions about identity are at the core of Hamoud’s first feature film, In Between (2016), originally titled Bar Bahr in Arabic, which translates to Land, Sea. The film is an Israeli-French co-production that premiered for the first time that year in the Toronto International Film Festival where it won the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema Award for World or International Asian Film Premiere. It then went on to win three more awards in the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain; best first feature film, best director and a collective acting award for Mouna Hawa, Shaden Kanboura and Sana Jammelieh, the film’s three leads. In Between was also nominated for 12 Ophir Awards, organized by the Israeli Academy of Film and Television and known as the Israeli Oscars, winning the awards for Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Lead Actress (Kanboura) and Best Supporting Actress (Hawa).

The film was commercially released in Israel, Europe and the United States, and Hamoud was awarded a 50,000 euro prize by the Women in Motion initiative at the Cannes Film Festival to support her next feature film project. French actor Isabelle Huppert presented her with the award, saying: “The free-spirited and joyful women that Hamoud portrays, torn between their desire for emancipation and the traditions that sometimes stifle them, are true heroines of our time.”

Who are these true heroines of our time? And why did their stories push the municipality of Umm al-Fahm, the hometown of one of the protagonists and the second-largest Arab city in Israel, northwest of Jenin, to describe In Between as immoral and lacking truth, followed by a fatwa that prohibits watching the film, and a slew of death threats directed at Hamoud and the three main actors?

The films follows three young Palestinian women sharing a flat in Tel Aviv. Laila is a lawyer who smokes heavily, loves to party and rejects any restrictions imposed on her lifestyle. She meets a Palestinian man who studied abroad in the US and they share stories, cigarettes and intimate talks that soon evolve into a lot more. It is a significant relationship for her, but soon enough she realizes that he harbors the same complexities of other men in her life after he reveals his judgmental side.

Salma is a bartender and sometimes DJ. At work, she meets a Palestinian doctor who has come to the big city to complete her residency, and they hit it off. Gradually we realize that Salma, the daughter of the conservative Christian family obsessed with marrying her off, is gay. She falls for the young doctor and both of them find solace in their budding love.

The third woman is Nour, a veiled, practicing Muslim who has come to Tel Aviv to continue her studies. She is engaged to a religiously conservative man who disapproves of her living in the flat with the other women. He tests her obedience when one day he insists that she move out of the flat and in to another house he has picked for her. She agrees but is soon suffocated by the oppressive space, and decides to move back into the shared flat. In response to her rebellious act, and in order to assert his control over her, Nour’s fiance rapes her.

In the beginning of the film, the three women do not get along very well. After Nour’s fiance rapes her, however, they work together to help her get revenge. The journey draws them closer and makes them realize that a form of feminist solidarity is what they need in order to move forward with their lives and let go of the patriarchal legacies tying them to their hometowns. By the closing scene, they are looking forward to a life of their own in Tel Aviv. The film’s final image shows the three women standing on the balcony of their apartment, sipping drinks shoulder to shoulder and looking out onto the bustle of a house party.

In her first feature film, Hamoud delves into issues of sexual identity, religious identity, Arab identity within Israel, sexual freedom, masculinity, sexual violence and rape in a moving film, set against a rousing soundtrack which features the voices of indie rock singer Yasmine Hamdan and Lod-based rap band DAM.

I was surprised to find out that this very Palestinian film, which tells the stories of three women struggling with the repercussions of their Palestinian identity, was funded by the Israel Film Fund. The film was celebrated by Israel, yet rejected by Palestinian conservatives for presenting an unrealistic and inappropriate portrayal  of Palestinian women, and by Palestinian liberals who believe that boycotting the state of Israel is an essential part of resisting the occupation.

The film screened in the Bristol Palestine Film Festival in December, prompting me to wonder whether it could indeed be considered a Palestinian film, what the story behind that festival is and the significance of the screening taking place in Bristol, a city known since the 19th century for its left-wing politics and  culture of protest. The most recent edition of the festival coincided with US President Donald Trump’s decision to transfer the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which was considered a significant step toward declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel. Following the announcement Al-Aqsa Mosque was closed to worshippers, and the call to prayer was banned for a few days.

The festival took off with a protest. It was small, yet felt very significant for me as an Egyptian at that specific time and place. The opening night featured a performance by 47Soul, a band comprised of Palestinians born in Palestine, Jordan and from the diaspora. They describe themselves as reviving the “soul of 47,” (the year before the establishment of Israel) by playing festive, authentic music that feels modern and free, as reflected by the chants of “freedom” throughout the concert.

In one corner of the venue, a range of Palestinian products was displayed on a table: thyme, olive oil, green olives, Palestinian flags and shawls, and brochures for an exhibition at the Palestine Museum Bristol. The bold celebration of Palestinian heritage heightened my curiosity about the logic behind the festival: why did it choose to screen films funded by Israel, including In Between, Maha Haj’s Personal Affairs (2016) and Junction 48 (2016) by Israeli-American director Udi Aloni?

It all started when festival founder David Owen traveled to Palestine eight years ago to train a local football team, according to British producer Alison Sterling, who has organized the event for the past two years. “The experience changed him and filled him with an anger that he wanted to put to use by shedding light on Palestine and its stories,” she says. “He wanted to give the UK audience a chance to see for themselves how Palestinians really lived, and to recognize the historical role the UK played in the situation.”

Sterling also expressed her enthusiasm for the cause, citing her two visits to Israel and Palestine. On one occasion she went with her daughter, who was doing research in the Aida Camp in Bethlehem, and walked the historic Abraham Path from Nablus to Bethlehem. Both she and Owen found Bristol to be a receptive crowd, describing the city’s residents as open minded and somewhat radical. This year, the festival showed seven feature films, with an average of 100–150 audience members at each screening. “It is a small but interested crowd,” she says.

When I asked Sterling about the films funded by Israel, she replied that there isn’t a wide range of films produced in Palestine every year, so the festival’s only criteria is for the films to be reflective of Palestinian reality with all its complexities and with no political filtering. “In Between and Personal Affairs are the first films by two Palestinian female directors who live inside Israel, and were suggested to us by Hana Atallah from Filmlab Palestine,” she says. “I am very aware that as a UK citizen I do not live under the same circumstances, so I am not in a place to judge these women’s choices.”

She outlines the festival’s programming criteria. “We try to take into consideration the broad guidelines of BDS, and one theory put forward by Omar Barghouti [BDS co-founder] holds that Palestinian artists who live in Israel pay taxes, and therefore this funding is their right. Especially given that they are not supportive of the state,” she says. “If these films were promoting Israel, we would not have screened them.”

In an interview with the Israeli +972 Magazine, Hamoud stated: “The state is giving me money, because I deserve to make films from the money I fucking pay [in taxes]. I’m not ashamed, and I deserve even more. And still, I would have taken money from elsewhere in order to lift the cloud of a boycott, but there’s nowhere else. So I took from the state, and the film will be screened as an Israeli-French movie, despite it being mostly Arab-Palestinian.”

The screening of Hamoud’s film in a Palestinian film festival poses pressing questions about the dilemma that filmmakers from Palestine face: Is pragmatism an inevitable choice? Should we seize any opportunity to make films? Can this film be programmed in a festival about a struggling Palestine whose scattered diaspora continues to organize events everywhere to promote their culture?

Regardless of how problematic the decision to treat In Between as a Palestinian film may be, it remains an important work in how it documents part of women’s history in a complicated country and a region loaded with bigger questions: Who are we? What defines us? What are our rights and how can we acquire them?

Hamoud summarized it best when she said: “Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are supposed to feel good after watching this film.”


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