How the Palestinian Director of Feminist Film 'Bar Bahar' Earned a Fatwa for Her Debut Feature

Courtesy of TIFF
'In Between (Bar Bahar)'

Maysaloun Hamoud says she set out to "shake the system" with a story about a conservative Muslim woman who moves in with a couple of partying flatmates.

Featuring drugs, alcohol and homosexuality, it’s fair to say Maysaloun Hamoud’s debut feature, Bar Bahar, broke a few taboos in her native Middle East.

But while the film — which was released in the U.S. as In Between — received rapturous reviews on the festival circuit (winning three awards in San Sebastian), the Palestinian director wasn’t expecting the level of backlash that occurred in her homeland.

The story sees a veiled Muslim woman from the ultra conservative West Bank town of Umm al-Fahm move into a Tel Aviv apartment with two Arab Israeli women and eventually rebel against her family and traditions after befriending her new partying housemates.

It was from Umm al-Fahm where many of the strongest attacks came from, with the municipality issuing a statement condemning the film and barring it from being screened there. Hamoud, alongside her actresses, also received death threats.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Hamoud discusses shaking up the system, how the reaction actually helped the film and how she became the target of the first Palestinian Fatwa in almost 70 years.

Did you anticipate this reaction?

I didn’t know from the beginning or even during production that it would be like this kind of mess. But of course I knew that we were going to ruffle feathers. I think it was one of the purposes … to shake the system. 

So this was something that you set out to do?

Yes, I think the movie is just kind of an extension to my belief and my activism. I have always been there in different circles, and art as cinema is one of the strongest ways to make a change in people’s minds.

The reaction from Umm al-Fahm was particularly strong ...

Yes, it was mostly from this specific place. It’s different factors that come together. But not all of them, of course. There are a lot people from there who are not fundamentalists, but we are talking about those who made all the strongest criticisms. And, of course, it was without seeing the movie. They don’t need to see the movie. The mayor gave a speech, which started with the sentence, “I didn’t see the movie, but …” They claim the movie is haram, it is forbidden, especially for girls ... but they actually illustrated what I was trying to say. I couldn’t really ask for more, and people went to the cinemas to see what was going on about this film.

But some of the threats are quite serious, no?

Yeah, I’ve got a Fatwa! You know, they haven’t issued a Fatwa here in Palestine since 1948. I’m the first in 70 years!

Are you worried at all?

For the first two weeks there was a lot of craziness. I’m not saying that I was scared or frightened, but the violence that was in the air from the fundamentalists was so strong. But after a while, after this shock that we got, the whole civil society and intellectual artists came forward … it was like the seculars and liberals. There were several articles that said that before Bah Bahar these issues had never been dealt with, and they started to be the topics that everyone was talking about. And it didn’t stop until now.