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In Between Charges Headfirst into a Backwards Israel

Alessio Franko
October 29, 2017

by Alessio Franko

NO ONE hasn’t seen The Odd Couple. Neil Simon’s 1965 play instantly became a movie, which instantly became a long-running television classic. The show’s sleek 2015 reboot has just been cancelled, but considering that nearly every other screen comedy centers on a pair or handful of mismatched roommates driving each other out of their comfort zones, it will hardly be missed. Perhaps the longevity of the Odd Couple conceit lies in its expression of a deeply intuitive notion that goes all the way back to Plato: proximity to difference is the key to growth.

Though more an interpersonal drama than a comedy, Maysaloun Hamoud’s new film In Between (Bar Bahar), screening at the 11th annual Other Israel Film Festival (November 2-9 at the JCC Manhattan in New York City), appears at first glance to be a sort of Palestinian Odd Couple (or “throuple”). The moment the hijab-wearing computer science student Nour (Shaden Kanboura) shows up with suitcases at the Tel Aviv apartment of jaded lawyer Leila and streetwise rave DJ Salma (Mouna Hawa and Sana Jammelieh), we expect to see a protracted cultural clash that matures all involved.

But In Between, which had a successful run in Israel, and has been shown at festivals in Europe and Canada, grabs hold of this formula only to set it in reverse. These three women are not gathered for a referendum on their differences, but precisely to learn how similar they are despite their backgrounds. And try as they might to mature, the world around them seems hell-bent on depriving them of growth.

Nour, Leila, and Salma are on their own paths throughout most of the film, intersecting and overlapping primarily between their most intense episodes. All the same, their respective stories feel like mirror images of one another. Nour has a fiancé, Salma’s status-obsessed Christian family is champing at the bit to set her up with one, and Leila is actively looking for a husband. These parallels are reinforced even in the film’s smallest gestures. Maysaloun deliberately shows us each woman’s intricate process of getting dressed at some point or another in the film, challenging the idea that secular culture frees Leila and Salma from having their appearance policed. No matter who you are or where you are from, sexism finds a way to tax you.

There are hardly any Jewish characters, and the few times that the film explicitly broaches “the conflict” are quick and tangential. Hamoud opts to dramatize her characters’ racial alienation in Israel by not dramatizing it, taking it instead as a premise that determines what is possible in the script from the outset. It is rather the theme of omnipresent misogyny that drives the film.

In Between is responsible in its depiction of the distinctly brutal ways misogyny can manifest in more conservative communities, but even as it does so, it still maintains that conservative and liberal forms of sexism are heavily intertwined. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Leila and Salma arrive home to find Nour in tears after a visit from her fiancé. There is no perplexity, no game of exposition -- they recognize the signs of domestic abuse within seconds and instinctively rush to her side in a way, we are allowed to extrapolate, that they have done before for others.

Whereas the average film enlarges in scope as it moves through its story, the world of In Between only gets narrower. Toxic masculinity rears its destructive head in every setting imaginable -- even the rave, the festival of music and intoxication that served as the women’s sole escape, is just as unsafe. While no one moment in the film screams its message, its case comes through with stunning clarity once all the pieces can be seen as a whole.

Decorated by film festivals and banned in hyper-conservative Umm al-Fahm (Nour’s hometown in the story), In Between’s “polarizing” trajectory echoes that of many socially provocative films before it: Banning and heaping accolades onto a film both ultimately serve to isolate it as an exceptional story rather than an urgently ubiquitous one. While the details of its reception do not diminish its value (nor necessarily add to it), they do suggest that Hamoud had room to push her statement further. Many believe they understand society’s ills, but few are willing to admit that they are constituents of society.

EVEN WHEN In Between shocks the viewer, it does not always manage to surprise. The film hinges on its men slowly evincing their true, grotesque colors, yet these reveals would pack so much more punch if we had really gotten to know these men more. From Nour’s fiancé to Leila’s boyfriend to Salma’s father, the film’s men are more or less antagonists from the start. Their meltdowns are as inevitable as the women’s challenges to them. Hamoud is right to keep the women in the spotlight at all times, but had she developed an endearing, indispensable male character in the supporting cast, his inevitable betrayal would have carried that much more weight and truly interrogated the boundary between individual and culture.

As American audiences often need to be reminded, however, a film is not just the story it tells, but the means by which it tells it. In Between truly excels in its use of music and silence to trace the ebb and flow of precarious urban life. Spending most of their nights in deafening discotheques, Leila and Salma treat silence as an enemy to be held at bay at all costs. There is a tangible quality to the use of silence throughout so much of In Between, in which muted scenes at the dinner table or wandering the streets of Tel Aviv suggest an imminent void looming in the background.

Our three heroines are being haunted, not by the past, but by the futures they will never attain. As a DJ, Salma takes on a distinctly defiant role, not only rejecting the silence her world forces upon her, but drowning it out with her own creations. Although it was Kanboura and Hawa who were celebrated at Israel’s Ophir Awards, Jammelieh’s Salma very much steals the show with her ability to convey desire, ambivalence, and good humor all in a single glance.

For all of the expectations In Between reverses, the world it paints on the screen seems awfully familiar. This is Hamoud’s double negative, her way of showing us how Israel itself can be a profoundly backwards place. Her film is simultaneously a distinctly Arab-Israeli story of exclusion as well as a universal narrative of women forced to look to the future through the backwards end of the spyglass, in which things that should be close seem impossibly far away.

You can see IN BETWEEN at the Other Israel Film Festival on Friday, November 3rd; tickets here. Use the code JEWISHCURRENTS at checkout for $3 off all tickets to the festival.

Alessio Franko, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is pursuing a Master’s in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. He trained as an actor at HB Studios in his hometown of New York City and earned his Bachelor’s in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.