Huda’s Salon: A female-led Palestinian spy thriller
Billed as a “feminist spy thriller,” Hany Abu-Assad’s Huda’s Salon was one of the titles world-premiered in the Platform strand of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (9-18 September).
The film was later screened at the Nashville fest (30 September-6 October) and Valladolid’s Seminci (23-30 October). Over the last few years, Abu-Assad, nominated twice for an Academy Award and winner of a Golden Globe worked on features such as The Mountain Between Us (2017), The Idol (2015), Omar (2013) and The Courier (2012).
"The characters complex morality and motives – well rendered through good acting performances.... make Huda’s Salon a compelling viewing"
The Palestinian-Dutch filmmaker’s latest cinematic endeavour, set in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, opens with a very engaging premise.
In the initial sequence, we see a young wife and mother called Reem (portrayed by Masa Abd Elhadi) who visits her friend Huda’s (Manal Awad) beauty salon to get her hair styled. We see the two chit-chatting for a few minutes, while Reem’s baby, Lina, whimpers. Among other topics, Reem touches upon the frustration caused by her oppressive husband. Huda seems willing to comfort Reem and offers her to drink a “special blend” of coffee.
After a few sips, the woman falls unconscious. The subsequent shot depicts Huda undressing Reem in another room and, with the help of a male accomplice, taking compromising photographs of the woman in his company. Huda wakes her up and offers only one way out: work with Israel’s secret service, spying on her own community.
For many, this unsettling prologue may be the gripping beginning of a thriller flick. In the film’s official press book, however, the director explains how he got inspired for his writing: “It did happen in Palestine that [Israeli] secret service officers used certain haircut salons to drug women, then put them in an awkward position and take Polaroids, so that they could blackmail them into becoming traitors against Palestine. And they used vulnerable women in Arab society, women who wouldn’t get support from their husbands or families.”
For most of its run, the feature adopts the aesthetic codes and the pacing typical of the thriller genre. Even though this choice manages to keep the viewers hooked, Huda’s Salon is ultimately more similar to a socio-political drama.
The film maintains its focus on the theme of betrayal, and it aims to sparkle debates on how complex and troubled are the systems of values established by the two opposing societies.
Unsurprisingly, the fear of exposing her shameful pictures and her hesitation in taking sides will trap Reem into an endless spiral of tragic events. In parallel, spectators will follow Huda’s vicissitudes, who ends up being kidnapped by a group of Palestinian Freedom Fighters. The resistance members find nameless pictures of all the women Huda recruited, including Reems.
One of her captors, a man called Hasan (Ali Suliman), wants to find out their names and get more valuable information. In the process, however, he also tries to dig deep into Huda’s soul to find out how and why she betrayed her people.
Despite their contrasting viewpoints and life choices, Hasan and Huda gradually form a sort of connection, gaining a minimum level of reciprocal trust. This development will not change Huda’s destiny and, most probably, it’s just part of Hasan’s strategy to extort information. At the same time, however, it becomes a useful plot device that allows the viewers to uncover the two characters’ backstories.
During her long interrogation, which takes place in a dark, cave-like environment, Huda explains that she got caught up in this perverse mechanism after being blackmailed herself, and Hasan will also disclose an important secret about his youth.
The characters’ complex morality and motives – well rendered through good acting performances, in particular, those of Awad and Abd Elhadi – make Huda’s Salon a compelling viewing.
It’s the tale of a society “easy to occupy,” as it is “already repressing itself,” as Huda claims at some point. In this sense, Hany Abu-Assad’s film demonstrates, once more, how suspicion, violence and patriarchal rule (here embodied by Hasan and his partners, but also by Huda’s jealous husband) can corrode a community at all levels.
During the film’s third act – spoiler alert – Reem’s despair will reach its climax. As the tension mounts, she will fear for her life and will struggle to tell her husband the truth about her recent “strange behaviour.” After 20 years, Huda – not her real name, obviously – still lives in the West Bank, in a protected area.
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Cork, Ireland.
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni