Meet Maysaloun Hamoud, the feminist director whose first film earned her a fatwa

In In Between, a brutal, bittersweet and heartening look at the lives of three women living together in a flatshare in Tel Aviv, we are transported to a conflicted world where lesbian DJs and successful female lawyers live alongside straight-laced students in hijabs, and brides are instructed to rein in their sexuality by strict elders.

Maysaloun Hamoud by Anne Manglier

It’s a world that Maysaloun Hamoud, the film’s 35-year-old director, was determined to crack open — and one that led to death threats for both her and her cast on its initial release in 2016.

In the UK for a week promoting the film (out in cinemas now), Maysaloun is unperturbed by the fact that she’s now recipient of Palestine’s first fatwa since 1948.

A tiny woman with the name of her film tattooed boldly on her arm, she’s surprised as I walk in to meet her — surprised that a film festival has selected her creation as their number one picture (she’s just found out), worried about what words to use in her email response, and in the same breath remembering that she also mustn’t forget to reply to her mother.

She’s amazed by the success of In Between, reeling off all the countries in which it’s been released (France, Spain, New Zealand, Australia) with the audience numbers (120,000 100,000, 80,000, 1,000) still fresh in her mind. It’s shocking to Maysaloun because, as she points out, “this is still an independent movie.”

I met her to discuss youth culture in the Arab world, LGBT voices in pop culture, and the reaction to her debut film — something she describes as “unusual, mind-blowing and empowering.”

The majority of the reactions have been positive. That reaction was actually so strong, and the idea of the Palestinian audience who can go, for the first time ever, to the theatres… a lot of people haven’t been there before. And it brings them to the theatres, and it’s fascinating, and of course the dialogue that the movie has affected within society also was so quick, and so strong. All the topics that you can see in the movie — we can call them taboos — started to be talked about, started to be at the front of the stage.

The fatwa and all those fundamentalist powers, which tried to shut down the movie, threatened our cast, were a kind of illustration for what the movie is talking about. All of them were men, conservative, fundamentalist. I think it was a normal action, when somebody criticises you, and you want to define yourself — it was a kind of violence.

But, at the same time, the other voices — liberal, secular, feminist, homosexual organisations — all those raised their voices so loud and it felt that — wow, we have a place; we have a space not to hide ourselves, and to say what we think, without fear.

It’s not for granted, when you go to see a movie. But when you when you to see a movie and it’s an an event that’s inside reality, it’s a very cosmic, magical accident. This is what happened at Israel-Palestine. We can understand what’s going on there, and expected that it would be a bad reaction for those (people).

But the (reaction to) the movie in the world, this is very surprising. What’s going to happen in my place? We could imagine. But we couldn’t imagine what was going to happen in the world. France, Spain, Italy, Australia, New Zealand… everyone wants it shown in their country.

As you know from the geopolitical situation that we live in, it (showing the film in Palestine) couldn’t happen. But I believe that everybody can see it — people will reach it, after a while, online. We are at a time that it can be everywhere. Borders are just in the lands, but in the virtual world there are no borders. So I am looking forward to the rest of the Arab world seeing it. Sometimes I’ve said to my producer, let me pirate it! I have distributors in all these countries, but I believe that next year it’ll be on Netflix, so people everywhere can see it. And I encourage people to see it.

This generation that you see in the movie, it’s exactly the underground scene that you can see all over — Beirut, Cairo, Amman, Tunisia, Berlin, London. This generation mostly has the same mindset, same dilemmas, topics and problems, and they show it everywhere.

The difference is that the setup in Israel adds complexity, because we are Arabs. We are young people all over the world, but we cannot really connect with them because of borders. So it’s an absurd way of living, that we cannot be the same. But everywhere you can find the same topics, and the same reaction for it.

In Lebanon, the band Mashrou’ Leilastarted to put homosexuality at the front. They are revolutionary because they have started to put issues at the front; the taboo of virginity., the taboo of not having sex before marriage, and homosexuality, and feminism — all those topics you can find in their music. The Arab world was boiling around this band.

Each of us has his owns actions, but the response is almost the same — for something new; we want to change the reality.

I think all of them are part of me, in a certain way. I think the three of them are representing a lot of faces of a lot of women, and also I think they become one woman, that is bigger than their separate parts.

The action is the waxing of the bride, with the old woman who teaches her how she has to be a good wife for her husband. This is the antithesis of what I really believe, so I wanted to put the normal — how it goes in real life — and break that.

I believe that to understand the essence, that I don’t want to be that wife — that everything in your being is to satisfy someone else. So to put this in the beginning is to create an assumption for the audience, that they will see something, but immediately break it.

It’s a kind of way that the rhythm is changing. Of course it depends what is going on in that moment, but I believe the eyes have a lot of power. What I can say in the eyes, I prefer than to say it in the mouth.

I knew that I didn’t want to shoot it how we imagine a rape scene, what we are “supposed” to see. I hate seeing how male directors shoot rape scenes — for example, Irreversible has a Monica Bellucci scene in the metro, the rape scene. I remember it, and not in a good way, because you see in the scene how sexist and how graphic the rape is. It’s kind of, down, down in the back — a fantasy. Sex and power. And it drove me crazy, so I said, ok — I will make it opposite; you will see nothing of her, for sure. I would prefer not to give all that graphic stuff that men always stretch to. You see her socks… you didn’t see anything, yet you felt so bad. Mission completed.

It already has brought changes, and it’s really a gift. I’m so thankful that art can really affect reality, and how effective it can be. Cinema can surprise us always; this is the magic of it.

In Between is out now.

Originally published at https://www.thenationalstudent.com.