Habibi: Film Review

The drama set in the occupied Palestinian Territories fails to impress, but a strong female lead adds character.

Director-screenwriter Susan Youssef's drama won the best Arab feature award at the Dubai Film Festival.

Judged best Arab feature at the Dubai Film Festival following its initial bow at Venice Days and Toronto Discovery, Susan Youssef’s first feature Habibi is a hit-and-miss love story between two Palestinian students torn apart by the combined forces of Israel’s rigid political boundaries and Palestinian social conventions. Rather too obvious to be newsworthy, the low-budget Palestine-U.S.-U.A.E.-Netherlands coprod benefits from the forceful intelligence of newcomer Maisa Abd Elhadi, who won Dubai’s best actress award, in the central role. Beyond the festival circle, it’s the kind of film that should speak most strongly to Arab women, though its tone is more realistic (and negative) than empowering.

As the story opens, Layla (Abd Elhadi) and Qays (Kais Nashif of Paradise Now) have just had their West Bank student visas revoked by Israeli authorities, and they are making a sad return to Gaza without having graduated. They furtively separate at the bus stop: she leaves with her parents and he heads to the refugee camp of Khan Younis. As flashbacks make clear, they have shared the same bed, but that is a deep dark secret in the world they live in.

Glum poet Qays is a free spirit and rebel with his head in the clouds; he writes love poems to Layla on the village walls (with words borrowed from the revered 7th century Arabian poet Qays.) This doesn’t impress her father, who finds it humiliating that his daughter’s name is all over town and who claims her reputation has been ruined.

Though the headstrong, outspoken Layla seems to match Qays in rebellion, her ties to her traditional family rein her in psychologically. Her parents urge her to marry to a well-to-do Hamas supporter, who they see as a safe haven in a dangerous world, while Qays has only a few shekels to back up his undying love.

Few onscreen sparks fly between the attractive leads and the fragile love story quickly turns into a didactic exercise, with Qays moping about and Layla nervously smoking cigarettes in secret while she tries to decide what to do. Youssef honestly presents her options as being one worse than the other, and this dead end gives the film a sense of downbeat realism.

Violence and a feeling of danger underlie all the action, ratcheting up tension with no clear end in sight. The film too hastily races through an important action scene which leads, all too obviously, to Layla’s brother being recruited by local extremists at the mosque. The film’s most convincing moments come when the lovers are brutally confronted first by Palestinian moralists and then by Israeli border guards (frighteningly unseen off screen), setting off a reaction of uncontrollable panic in the girl.

Shot in the occupied Palestinian Territories, the digital camerawork has a gritty low-budget look. The editing by Youssef and Man Kit Lam is tight and controlled and earned the film a technical award in Dubai.

Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Muhr Arab Feature competition)
Production companies: S.Y. Films,Dubai Media and Entertainment Organization in association with Dubai Film Market (Enjaaz), Idioms Film
Cast: Kais Nashif, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Yussef Abu-Warda, Amer Khalil, Najwa Mubarki, Jihad Al-Khattib, Adham Nu'man, Ward Shwekh, Nidaa Abu Shamaa, Rajaie Khatib, Basel Husseini
Director: Susan Youssef
Screenwriters: Susan Youssef
Producers: Man Kit Lam, Susan Youssef
Executive producers:  Derek Yip
Director of photography: P.J. Raval
Production designer:  Bashar Hasuneh 
Costumes: Hamada Atallah
Editors: Man Kit Lam, Susan Youssef
Music: Menno Cruijsen
Sales Agent: Paradigm
No rating, 78 minutes