Sisters are doing it for themselves in the queer-themed Israeli film “In Between,” playing May 1 at the Gershman Y as part of the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival’s “CineMondays” program.
This absorbing drama, directed by Maysaloun Hamoud, has three Palestinian women living together in Tel Aviv. Leila (Mouna Hawa) and her roommate Salma (Sana Jammelieh) like to have fun, drinking and doing drugs with their gay and straight friends. Enter Nour (Shaden Kanboura), a Muslim student who is studying computer science at a nearby university. She moves into the apartment, and is initially wary of her new roommates. However, the women are actually very supportive of one another.
As Arabs living in Israel, the women are described as “in between” — “neither here nor there.” The description also fits the central characters because they are navigating the uncertainty in their lives.
Lelia, who viewers might be surprised to discover is a lawyer, is the strongest and arguably most cynical of the three roommates. She enters into a relationship with Ziad (Mahmoud Shalaby), a filmmaker she meets at a party. Their seduction is charming, and there is an irresistible chemistry between them as they eat a private meal together in the apartment. However, a conflict soon develops between them when Leila meets Ziad’s sister. Leila steadfastly refuses to change some of her behaviors, like smoking, for her boyfriend. Viewers will be rooting for her as she remains firm in her convictions.
In contrast, Nour is engaged to Wissam (Henry Andrawes), but Wissam is skeptical of Nour living with Leila and Salma. He calls them bad influences and refers to them as “sluts.” While Nour’s roommates may be party girls, the tolerance and support they share is noteworthy. Moreover, Wissam’s behavior is quite reprehensible towards Nour — and not just because he doesn’t want her to get a job so she can stay home and raise their children.
Meanwhile, Salma’s parents keep arranging dinners with suitors for her to marry, but Salma is a closeted lesbian. She eventually acts on her attraction to Dunya (Ahlam Canaan), a doctor who sidles up to the bar where Salma works. Their relationship starts out slowly when Salma prematurely ends a potential evening together to take care of a drunk Leila. But the young women meet for coffee the next day, and after a little kissing, things start to get serious. Salma even takes Dunya home to her unsuspecting parents, which causes some dramatic fireworks.
“In Between” generated some controversy in Israel early this year because of its portrayal of lesbianism, as well as for the characters’ copious drinking and drug-taking. The film is certainly risqué for an Arab-Israeli production, but the portrayal of these women’s lives is compelling because each female character has agency.
The feminist points director Hamoud make ring true, and they are never preachy — even if the opening scene has a woman getting her legs depilated by a cosmetician who reinforces gender roles. The beautician tells her client “not to raise her voice, cook good food, wear perfume, keep your body smooth and do what he tells you in bed.” These are not things the women, even Nour, in “In Between” are likely to do.
What buoys the film is the bond that develops among the roommates, which is heartfelt and never calculated. After Leila and Nour chat in their kitchen, it makes sense that Leila cares about Nour to help with a sticky situation that develops with Wissam. Thankfully, the female characters never get emotional or sappy; they simply do what they can for one another. Hamoud’s film is refreshing that it never insults its characters or its audience.
Even Salma’s relationship with Dunya is depicted beautifully, showing the women comfortably holding hands in Tel Aviv, but breaking their grasp in Salma’s hometown when a neighbor spots their affection.
“In Between” is a film in which many of the characters “live a lie,” or have to repress their true natures. What makes it so inspiring and satisfying is how the women navigate these trials and tribulations in their lives. Salma may be closeted with her parents, and more open with her friends, but watching her come into her own is gratifying. Likewise, while Nour is trapped in a bad relationship, she finds appropriate ways of asserting her independence. And Leila’s response to Ziad, who asks her not to live her life as she wants, is empowering.
The three lead actors are superb, creating characters who are tough and vulnerable in equal measure. Their stories tug at the heartstrings but never strain the emotions.
Hamoud’s film is only playing once in Philadelphia — don’t miss it.