Self or nation? Loyalty or betrayal? Stay or leave?
These are the questions pulsing through Huda’s Salon, the eighth film from Hany Abu-Assad. They are not unfamiliar themes for the Palestinian director; his previous films, including the Oscar-nominated Paradise Now and Omar, explored similar questions with precision and sensitivity. But Huda’s Salon, a tightly conceived political thriller based on real events, heightens the stakes of these queries by applying them to Palestinian women, whose oppression under Israeli occupation is compounded by the patriarchal forces within their homes and communities.
Smart and suspenseful.
Huda’s Salon opens with a humorous and congenial scene of bonding. Huda (Manal Awad), a stylist in Bethlehem, stands over her client, Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi), while running warm water through her thick black hair. As she pumps shampoo into her hands and gently massages Reem’s scalp, Huda laments about the state of the world. Business is slow because her usual clients, empowered by YouTube, think they can color and cut their own locks. Facebook allows those same people to share their poor efforts widely. It’s all a mess.
Reem laughs, and as Huda guides her from the sink to the salon chair, the conversation becomes more personal. Huda, with her voluminous coffee-brown hair and rouged lips, asks Reem, who recently had a baby, when she plans to resume her work as a hairdresser. “You have golden hands,” Huda says of the young woman’s styling skills. A conflicted Reem confesses that she’d like to open her own salon one day when her baby, Lina, is older — even though her husband, Yousef (Jalal Masarwa), would prefer that she stay home.
The conversation, shot in an impressive continuous take and teeming with warmth, underscores the similarities between Reem and Huda, two sharp women with firm convictions. The palpable maternal connection makes it all the harder to process Huda’s shocking betrayal. As Reem carries on talking, Huda drugs her coffee and, with the help of a hired model (Samer Bisharat), lugs the soon unconscious mother to a room in the back of the shop. Working quickly and efficiently, the salon owner strips Reem, poses her in compromising sexual positions next to the male model, and snaps a few pictures.
When Reem finally comes to, she is stunned and confused by Huda’s actions and subsequent proposal: Reem must spy for the occupation forces’ secret service or Huda will show Reem’s photos to the new mother’s jealous husband and family. But this isn’t really a choice — for a woman in this community, the only thing worse than being a traitor is to be considered sexually impure. Scared and shocked, Reem hurries out of Huda’s salon, which neither party realizes is being surveilled by the resistance.
From here, Huda’s Salon picks up speed, becoming a fast-paced thriller centered on the interconnected fates of the two women and hewing close to the genre’s conventions. That evening, members of the resistance kidnap a restless Huda from her home and bring her to a dark underground hideout for interrogation by Hassan (Ali Suliman). Their conversation doubles as a heated exchange of ideas about women in Palestine.
Suliman, who many will remember as Khaled in Paradise Now, and Awad have a thrilling onscreen dynamic that prevents the intellectual spar from fully succumbing to pretension. The intensity of their eye contact, the restrained body movements, and the vigor of their random bursts of anger add a titillating layer to the conversation (it’s a spy thriller, after all), which swings relatively smoothly between broad sociopolitical beliefs and the personal experience on which they are formed.
Perhaps the most satisfying part of the interrogation is the eventual effect that Hassan and Huda have on each other. Neither stays rigid, and the inclusion of these softer moments makes it easier to digest the times when the script gets lost in its sweeping arguments. And, not to give to too much away, but Huda proves to be a more complicated spy, whose alliance with the occupation isn’t as clear-cut as Hassan assumes.
As Huda and Hassan argue in the lair, Reem finds herself in a cat-and-mouse chase with Hassan’s men. She realizes she can’t trust anyone, and the isolation causes her to become increasingly withdrawn and desperate. Elhadi, who played a young mother in Palestinian filmmaker Mai Masri’s 3000 Nights, taps into the same anguish and pulls from it an equally emotional performance here. Reem’s story crescendos until she cracks toward the end of the film’s second act.
Unlike with his other films, Abu-Assad seems to gesture at a more direct point of view in Huda’s Salon, one that respects — or perhaps a better word is “reveres” — the perspective of women. “Huda’s Salon explores equality from the perspective, not of women being equal to men, but men as equal to women,” he writes in his director’s statement. “I believe that we should be equal to the values of women and not the values of narcissistic men.” With this sentiment, it’s clear that Huda’s Salon is a humble offering to the existing, and incredibly diverse, tradition of art that understands that the garden of liberation will not thrive without eradicating its patriarchal weeds.