There is a particular glamour to party nights in cities like Beirut or Tel Aviv – the proximity of the sea, the dark starry nights, suntanned boys and girls dancing the night away at impromptu gatherings, smoking on balconies and rooftop terraces, sometimes encountering that unexpected spark of attraction.
Laila and Salma share a colourful flat in Tel Aviv. Both are Palestinian Israelis, both are secular but from different backgrounds, one Muslim, the other Christian. They each lead very independent, active lives. Laila is a headstrong lawyer. Salma is equally spirited. She quits her kitchen job when she is chided for speaking in Arabic to a colleague, and quickly finds a bar job somewhere that could easily be Stoke Newington, Berlin or Lisbon.
Soon Nour, a computer science student, joins them. Unlike them, she is religious and seems almost docile. She arrives clumsily, wrapped in a headscarf and encumbered by a heavy suitcase.
It becomes obvious the three flatmates are strangers in a strange land, and escapees from an even harsher world. Tel Aviv is home and refuge to them but also a place where they are seen as disruptive and even dangerous to outsiders. When Laila and Salma go shopping for a dress and chat in Arabic, they catch the alarmed look of the shop assistant. They reassure her in Hebrew that they don’t bite.
Their independence also alarms people closer to them, and each young woman encounters a defining point where resistance comes at a painful cost. There is an underlying jeopardy to their lives, driven by an archaic patriarchal culture common to the region and which cuts across religious lines. In that, the film is an interesting companion piece to the 2016 film by Ronen Zaretzky and Yael Kipper, Child Mother.
Saying no means being exposed to potential violence – male violence, personal betrayal, and familial coercion. As the story develops, this sense builds up. Despite their different outlooks, the three women close ranks and, true to character, assert themselves…
The film has caused strong reactions in some Palestinian communities, with death threats made to the director and actresses, and a fatwa issued on Hamoud, the first in Palestine since 1948.
Maysaloun Hamoud is a Palestinian Israeli director born in Hungary and brought up in Israel. This is a fluent and self-assured first feature for her, as both writer and director. Leads Mouna Hawa, Sana Jammelieh and Shaden Kanboura form an accomplished ensemble. Their very different characters forge a convincing friendship. Shaden Kanboura, who plays Nour, has remarked that Bar Bahar’s characters lead lives very similar to the cast’s. An irrepressibly catchy soundtrack adds to the defiant energy of the film. It is impossible not to want to dance to Aziza, a track sung by Yasmin Hamdan.
Bar Bahar is an optimistic story about lives lived to the full. The price for that is to live an in between existence, not fully at home here or there. But the film is joyous, and makes clear it is a price worth paying. Like its engaging characters, this film is gorgeous, sassy, sexy and spirited.
Director & Writer: Maysaloun Hamoud
Cinematography: Itay Gross
Cast: Mouna Hawa, Sana Jammelieh, Shaden Kanboura
First published on Screenwords, July 2017