In Between (Bar Bahar): Representing Women’s Lives
by Larayb Abrar
“People say all the stories have been told, but it’s the men’s stories that have already been told,” says Maysaloun Hamoud, writer and director of Palestinian-Israeli film In Between (Bar Bahar). First released in 2016 at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film follows the lives and developing friendship of three Palestinian women sharing an apartment in Tel Aviv. The film was also shown recently at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the museum’s “The Future of Film is Female” series.
Layla (Mouna Hawa) is a no-nonsense defense attorney from Haifa, a city in Northern Israel, who works hard and party’s hard. Alongside her is aspiring D.J. Salma, (Sana Jammalieh) a lesbian from a Christian-Arab family in Nazareth who works the underground disco scene and gets by working as a kitchen help and bartender. The newest member of their apartment is Nour (Shaden Kanboura), an observant, hijab-wearing Muslim from the small town of Umm al-Fahm who is working toward a university degree in Computer Science. While the stage here appears to be set for a trashy, dramatic ideology battle between liberal and conservative lifestyles, Hamoud does us one better and uses this convergence to sow the seeds of female solidarity amid difference.
Representations of female relationships and experiences are scarce on-screen. According to a recent article published in The Cut, there has been no significant statistical improvement in the representation of women, people of color or LGBT characters in Hollywood over the last decade. Thus, MoMA’s screening of a film centered entirely on the lives of these three non-American women of color is relevant, timely and an important step. Yet, the bulk of the driving conflict is patriarchy and the things men make women do. The payoff here is that while in male narratives, men get to struggle with deep existential issues, mental illness and questions of morality, women’s struggles are men.
When Layla dates Ziad (Mahmoud Shalaby), everything seems great at first. Their lifestyles, ambitions and personalities instantly click. And yet, he is reluctant to introduce her to his family and insists that she first start dressing modestly and quit smoking. When asked if he would change anything about himself in return, he is taken aback, using societal double-standards as his clutch, “We’re not in Europe; you know things are different here.” In Salma’s case, she is constantly introduced to potential suitors for marriage, despite the fact that she has a girlfriend. When her parents find out that she prefers women, she is forbidden to leave the house and is told that she must and will marry whomever her parents pick out for her, like a “decent girl”, as though good women only exist with a family or a husband, but never independently. Even Nour, who stereotypically would encompass all the qualities of a “good”, “modest” woman endures an abusive fiancé who disagrees with her choice to pursue a higher education and quotes religion to convince her to stay at home and bear children.
Though all three stories are ever-present with men controlling and lurking in the background, the reality remains that most women’s experiences, despite differences in culture and context, are in fact constant battles with lack of access, restriction and scarcity of choice. And while certainly, female narratives free of a significant male presence exist – HBO’s Girls is a prime example – even those stories are predominantly White and reflective of a small demographic of women. It can be difficult to fully tell a woman’s story. How does one create a character full of longing and ennui while also paying homage to resistance and finding an outlet for outrage at one’s oppression? Women of color especially must deal with words like “tradition”, “culture” and “religion” which are manipulated to keep them in their place and to hold them to higher moral standards than men.
In one of the last scenes of In Between (Bar Bahar), after Layla has broken up with Ziad, after Salma has decided to move to Berlin to be able to fully express herself and after Nour has successfully broken her engagement, the girls gather on their balcony during a party they’re throwing and look into their living room, watching as people dance. They stare out blankly, contemplating their future. Hamoud’s message here is that it is only uphill from here, and if we’re being honest, it will always be uphill. If In Between and the rest of the films in MoMA’s series can show us anything about representing women’s stories on camera, is that it’s a catch-22: a constant negotiation between telling philosophical narratives that men have enjoyed since forever and expressing anger at the system.