Filmmaker Maysaloun Hamoud does not like being typecast.
“The Israelis say, you don’t look Arab or Palestinian,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Huh? If I wear a dress or outfit that [doesn’t look] religious, I cannot be a Palestinian? I have to be, like, exactly how you design me?”
Hamoud is 35, wearing a long skirt, tank top and rose-tinted sunglasses. The title of her acclaimed and controversial film Bar Bahar — or In Between in English — is tattooed in Arabic and English on her right forearm.
We meet at a cafe near her home in the seaside port of Jaffa, next to Tel Aviv. She’s hugging her pet Siberian Husky.
The intense child of Palestinian communists, Hamoud was born in Budapest, Hungary, and grew up in the Israeli city of Beersheba in the Galilee. She is among the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinians.
So are the three main characters in her film.
Layla, Salma and Nour are three young women who share an apartment in Tel Aviv’s Yemenite quarter.
“There is a lot of me in each of these three characters,” Hamoud says. “I wrote them from my soul.”
As a film student, Hamoud made four short films, including Shades of Light, which explored gender and identity in Palestinian society. In Between, an Israeli-French co-production, is her first full-length feature.
The film chronicles how Layla, Salma and Nour try to be their true selves — ambitious, educated, sexually liberated — while caught between a conservative Palestinian culture and a more liberal Israeli state that does not see them as equals.
“They are fighters,” Hamoud says. “Each of them, in her way, fights to not compromise herself.”
Layla, for instance, played by Mouna Hawa, is a successful lawyer who wins over her Israeli Jewish colleagues by negotiating tough deals. But her Palestinian boyfriend won’t introduce her to his family. He wants her to give up her liberated lifestyle.
“So if I give up smoking and drinking and dressing as I do, not to mention partying,” she says to him in the film, “what are you planning to give up?” (Not much, as it happens).
Her housemate Salma, played by Sana Jammelieh, is a D.J. with a pierced nose. She pays her share of the rent by cooking in a restaurant. Her Israeli Jewish supervisor chews her out for speaking Arabic with the other kitchen staff.
She gives him the finger and walks off the job. Yet she’s afraid to tell her Christian family that she’s gay.
And then there’s Nour.
She’s a pious Muslim and wears a headscarf. She also studies computer science, even though her controlling fiance wants her to be a housewife.
In one scene, Layla and Salma tenderly wash her in the shower after her fiance rapes her.
But Nour, played by Shaden Kanboura, doesn’t tell her family, hiding the rape from her father when he talks about the new house her fiance is building for their married life.
“Believe me, Father,” she tells him. “Some people live in palaces, but God only knows what their lives are like inside.”
Hamoud says she’s received hundreds of messages from women saying, “That’s me.”
“A lot of people see themselves in the movie, and see people they know,” she says. “Those characters are all over, around us. Just we don’t see them.”
One place did not like seeing itself in the movie. Umm al-Fahm, a busy town of 52,000 in the green hills of northern Israel near the West Bank city of Jenin, is where the character of Nour comes from.
Umm al-Fahm has been run since the 1990s by politicians close to the northern branch of the Islamic Movement of Israel, which promotes Islam to Arab citizens of Israel. This branch of the party was banned by the Israeli government in 2015 because of ties to the militant group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip.
The Umm al-Fahm municipality told its citizens to boycott Hamoud’s film, saying it hurts the town’s reputation.
Abeer Mahameed, a 29-year-old mother of three who lives near the town’s main mosque, says she’s heeding the boycott.
“Our mayor says our girls are good, clean, pure, decent women,” she says, “unlike the portrayal in the film of our girls as loose women.”
Many townspeople had strong opinions about the film, but only two with whom NPR spoke admitted to seeing it.
One was Said Mahazheh, a 45-year-old engineer. He says the female characters are too sexually liberated, so he’s forbidden his economist wife and 18-year-old daughter from going to the film.
“I would be extremely upset if they saw the film,” he says. “I want freedom but this freedom must be constrained within our habits and customs and traditions. We live in a traditional, highly moral society. I don’t want my wife and daughter to see a film that distorts this image.”
Waseem Hosary, a lawyer, liked the film — and says its exploration of male chauvinism masquerading as moralism is devastating.
“Our society is not ready at all to deal with this issue,” he says over espresso and dates in his modern office in Umm al-Fahm. “If anyone, not just Maysaloun, any girl and woman, wants to discuss this issue, she will be in trouble. If Maysaloun was named Mohammad, she may have dared.”
Up to now, many Palestinian films have shown men as the heroes, Hamoud says. “Usually women are presented as a stereotype, as sisters or mothers only, not full characters that lead the stories and the point of view of the story,” she says.
That’s why her film’s subtext of sex — and women’s freedom to do what they want with their bodies — has been controversial, she says.
“The whole issue of sex sits on the issue of patriarchy,” Hamoud says. “Men still feel, think, behave as though women are property. Nothing will change in our societies until that’s no longer acceptable.”
In Between has won acclaim at festivals in Spain and Canada and earned a standing ovation at the Haifa Film Festival. It’s now being shown internationally and is expected to arrive in U.S. theaters this summer.
But Hamoud and the film’s actresses have received death threats since In Between was released in Israel in January. The director shrugs off the threats.
What’s important to her, she says, is that the film is resonating — and not just with Palestinians.
As we finish our interview at the cafe in Jaffa, a Jewish Israeli admirer comes over and asks to take a selfie with Hamoud.
Einat Yiftach-El, a young Israeli woman who works for a nonprofit that promotes Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, says the movie “leaves you with many things to think of, about a society that we actually don’t really know.”
“Even if you don’t think in stereotypes, you don’t see the choices [Palestinian] women have to make because of their society,” Yiftach-El says. “They live among us, but also very separately.”