'In Between': Arab feminism and the emergence of the Palestinian avant-garde

"Pas ici, pas là-bas",de la réalisatrice Mayslon Hamud
For her first film, director Maysaloun Hamoud traces the journey of Palestinian youths thirsting for freedom

"In Between" is the debut film of Bulgarian-born Palestinian writer and director Maysaloun Hamoud, depicting the lives of three Palestinian women sharing a flat in Tel Aviv. The Palestinian underground scene in the city serves as an ideal playground to test the boundaries of freedom of expression that the characters demand for themselves. Through their careers and their love lives, from dating, parties, cigarettes, and alcohol - their three stories converge into one common destiny.

i24NEWS's Kaid Abu Latif spoke with Hamoud about her movie and the new Palestinian avant-garde.

How was "In Between" born?

We were at an important historical point in time, just at the beginning of the formation of the new Palestinian cultural scene, with groundbreaking parallel revolutions in the Arab world around us. We felt it was time to come up with a new voice. Now, we told ourselves, the existing order is being brought down and new and healthy societies are being built, societies which can promote citizens from the grim reality, as we know it, since the beginning of the era of nation-states. With this spirit the idea for the film was born.

Is the movie based on your personal experiences of living between Tel Aviv and Jaffa?

The realism of the film's cinematic language means it remains faithful to the world it represents. What the protagonists perceive as normal – the pubs they hang out at, the dress code, the way they talk – is actually Tel Aviv's Palestinian underground scene.

And since I'm part of that scene, you could say I captured my life in the film. The plot lines don't closely match my biography but I drew inspiration from the things around me and real people in my life. The milieu captured in the film didn't come out of nowhere, it runs parallel to similar scenes across the Arab world, in cities such as Beirut, Cairo, Amman, Tunis and others.

Being the child of a Communist Party member, my earliest memories are of my father carrying me on his shoulders during the May Day parade. No doubt this has affected and created many influences. Books by Emil Habibi, Darwish, Tawfik Ziad, Ghassan Kanafani, Naji al-Ali, and Marquez were accessible at my home, as were other milestones of Arab and world culture

Can you describe what you mean by "Palestinian avant-garde"?

I mean by that the community of young Palestinians, the oldest of whom are in their thirties. They live in an urban space, mostly in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem. It's made up of the trailblazer generation, who paved the way, and the generation who are 10 years younger and followed in their footsteps. The vast majority, if not all, of the trailblazers experienced the events of October 2000 as teenagers; it was their big conscious-forming moment. In retrospective, you could say these young people were molded in the years following the October 2000 events, at universities and in the activist community which was on fire during the second Intifada.

Students and young activists, cadres of Arab political parties in the country, flooded the streets in demonstrations and strikes which were marked by a secular and free spirited struggle. The struggle was heterogeneous, girls and boys were equally active, and the struggle did not confine itself only to the national aspects. Questions concerning sexual liberation, sexual identities and feminist consciousness were an integral part of the social experience that allowed the scene to grow.

By the way, these youngsters grew up as I did - on the classical Arab poetry of al-Mutnabbi and Abo Nawas, which I quote in the film, as well as many others like the national modern poets, Muzaffar al-Nawab, Mahmoud Darwish, and Adonis, who deal with freedom as a fundamental part of their writings.

It takes great boldness to deal with sexuality and homosexuality in the Arab world. To what extent were you bothered by the question of acceptance of the film and its issues?

Once you express your world view and your manifest, there's no turning back. Either do something real or don't do it at all. At least that is the way I see things.

The youthful spirit of the Arab Spring did not pass over Palestine/Israel. We were all there with our souls. In one moment cries of "Kefaya" (Arabic for "Enough") left the mouths of millions of young people who were tired of the old biases based on oppression, patriarchy, sexism, exclusion, repression of homosexuality and the perpetuation of traditional codes that were aimed at securing the existing order.

The "Enough!" is an expression of a conscious change that is happening in the younger generation. This generation can no longer continue playing with codes that aren't relevant anymore. We must put things on the table, as long as we continue to sweep the fears under the carpet, the carpet will rise and we will all stumble into the darkness that overshadows our freedom. If we don't shake out the carpet and deal with things now it will be too late and degeneration will conquer.

If the question is whether I am afraid of hostile reactions to the film, I can say that I am not naive and I'm sure there will be "stigmatizing" following the film, and even hostility towards me personally, but that's part of the price that has to be payed for changing consciousness, which is the reason I make films. I am concerned about the degree to which the film is accepted only in respect to its ability to create a lively dialogue around the issues it deals with. Whether or not this will happen, I do not know.

Did you try to present a new type of Arab femininity or Palestinian feminism through the film?

I think it's time to bring more Palestinian female representations to Palestinian cinematography. The stereotype of a woman always being someone's mother, sister, or daughter has already ignited itself. There is a new era which is opening up - one in which a women is staged in the center and not just behind the male characters.

In most cases, the direct political story is the one of importance, the one in which Palestinian women are usually represented as being victimized. I want to show that women exist among us, but are, at the same time, transparent in cinematic imagery. The film presents a range of female figures, young and old, town and country dwellers, more traditional and less traditional, while ensuring real femininity and not just one model of beauty.

My heroines bring their dreams to the screen. Sexuality, activism, and liberation from men can be feminist even if that word does not necessarily define them. Many religious women act in a feminist way without calling it that, it doesn't really matter. The point is that each one can free herself in her own way and she doesn't have to be liberal or secular to be freed.

The documentary is almost entirely in Arabic, but much of the crew who worked on it did not speak Arabic, how did it work in practice?

I knew I was going to juggle between the two languages, because working with the actors was in Arabic and with the crew, it was mostly Hebrew. At first it was a bit strange that Arabic got the focus, and there were those who felt threatened, as if someone pulled the rug from under their feet, because they did not know the language and didn't understand everything that was going on. But slowly it began to be fun because the crew knew the script and gradually started to realize what was going on in between the shots. And even those who felt animosity started to use the language.

At the end of filming, Arabic became common and I was thrilled that I managed to break this barrier and it was good for everyone.

Where do you "place" the film in relation to other contemporary films made in the Arab world?

An Arab New Wave has began to emerge. As we have been influenced by the spirit of the Arab Spring and because we are similar to many friends in the Arab world we can see a new wave of realism also in Tunisia and Lebanon and Amman, with emphasis on freedom and liberation. This thread links artists despite the geographical distance. Today, with the Internet being a world of its own, close relationships are formed and collaborations are happening.

Kaid Abu-Latif is an i24NEWS Arabic web desk editor.

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