Maysaloun Hamoud interview
The debut feature from Palestinian director Maysaloun Hamoud, In Between, upset Islamic authorities. Not afraid of the controversy, she remains as fierce, funny and intelligent as her film
This is exactly how the 35-year old Israeli-Palestinian director would describe her community back home. It’s represented in In Between by three Arab women who end up sharing an apartment together in central Tel Aviv – a DJ from a Christian background who’s gay; a criminal lawyer who’s secular Muslim; and a computer science student from a conservative Muslim family.
’I live this life. I just captured the reality into the cinema and tried also not to filter it. I just wanted to put up a mirror for both societies that we live in between: the Palestinian one with the traditions – the conservative, the patriarchal – and also the Israeli – the racist, discriminatory. [We] don’t really have a space. [We] are in between.’
Hamoud paints a picture of her native city (she lives in the Jaffa district) that might not fit with the public image of Tel Aviv as a liberal paradise, tipped by the Lonely Planet travel guide as a ‘kind of San Francisco of the Middle East’.
For people of her background, she claims, the reality is very different.
‘We don’t have London and no Berlin, unfortunately,’ she laughs. ‘Tel Aviv is the Jewish Israeli city that, as an allegory for all of Israel, sells itself as liberal and open-minded and all this bullsh*t. But in fact, it’s not. Because if you’re not white, Jewish, from a wealthy family, basically you are the underdog and, as a Palestinian for sure, you will always be a second-class citizen.’
In Between is a step towards giving those second-class citizens the visibility they lack, but not everyone has been a fan of what they have seen.
As well as gaining multiple accolades at the Toronto and San Sebastián film festivals, the movie – with its scenes of drinking, drugs and dancing on Tel Aviv’s clubbing circuit – has also earned Hamoud a fatwā (tantamount to a death threat) and been declared haram (forbidden) by the mayor of the Umm al-Fahm, the strictly religious town from which one of her characters hails.
How has Hamoud reacted to these extreme responses? Well, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
‘I didn’t even have to react because the audience reacted. This is the movie that has had a huge amount of texts written [about it] while it’s still in the cinema! It’s phenomenal, especially for an independent, low-budget movie.’
There has been a greater impact, though, than just getting people to the cinema. She continues:
‘When all the fundamentalist powers insulted with their criticism, even before watching the movie – just from the trailer they assumed that they knew everything – they called the movie ‘forbidden’. And, in fact, they were scared because for a long time, they have been ruling and so much the basis of what we should thinking or how we should behave. Then the girls came and shook the system.’
Hamoud herself has recently been recognised as one of those ‘girls’. At Cannes this year, she was given the Women in Motion Young Talent Award by Isabelle Huppert who was lauded and awarded for her leading role in last year’s ‘post-feminist’ Elle. That film bears many similarities to the female-driven dramas by Spanish director Almodóvar that Hamoud cites as one of her main influences.
While women are becoming more prominent on screen, she would like to see their off-screen roles boosted as well.
‘I believe that really the solution of changing what's going on now with the world and in a very intense way – Trump…actually I don’t even want to think about it – is women’s solidarity. Of course, not just by women themselves only. No. [Men] have as much a responsibility for the world as us. We are your sisters, your mothers, your lovers. So I think to change positions of power, to make it equal, to make it better, I think that women have to lead more, definitely.’
Thinking on a global scale seems to come naturally to Hamoud. Although her focus in In Between is small, she’s keen that its themes of sexism and prejudice are not seen as Middle Eastern issues.
She leans in slightly and lowers her voice.
’The story of those three girls is so particular, for sure, but because they are so particular they are, at the same time, universal. I think that the Europeans maybe don’t want to admit that when they see the movie, they try not to think about themselves. They just think or want to believe that it belongs to ‘there’ but I, again, tell them then that it’s also about you.’
She is also happy to admit, though, that her part of the world has a tendency to be a little more ‘dramatic’ (her word) than most.
‘You go around the world and you say, ‘People can live differently, there is something else’. But when you’re used to a state of mind of non-stop action, you feel like everywhere else is boring!’, she jokes.
It’s clear Hamoud’s fighting spirit, and sense of humour, have remained intact despite the criticisms that have been thrown at her. She still believes in her power as a filmmaker to bring about change.
‘I think as an artist we have a responsibility. We had a gift from the cosmos, we have special tools to affect people, to influence them, to change minds – and this is scary. It’s a big responsibility. And I believe that in the long term, it will be worth it. We can hang out a little bit at Berlin and then return to work in Jaffa or wherever.’
So what’s on her horizon when she eventually returns to home? She reveals In Between is part of a trilogy but there’s something else in the pipeline before she starts working on those films.
‘I will release something I’m working on – a TV series, a criminal comedy. I really like Guy Ritchie. So I’ll be making a kind of Palestinian Snatch. I’m really looking forward to it because it's so different. It’s familiar, like In Between, because it’s in the same world – my world –but it’s a genre change.’ She pauses. ‘It's going to be crazy,’ she says with wide eyes.
It’s certainly a contrast to In Between.
‘Yes. I have a lot of colours inside me,’ she says smilingly.
Well, no one can disagree with that.