Hany Abu-Assad directs Huda’s Salon, a thriller that posits: “It’s easier to occupy a society that is already repressing itself.”
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“It’s easier to occupy a society that is already repressing itself.” These words, spoken by the eponymous Huda (Manal Awad), act as a thesis statement for Huda’s Salon. While this is a film about life in modern day Occupied Palestine, set in the city of Bethlehem, we never meet any Israeli soldiers. Instead, Huda’s Salon focuses on the tensions between Palestinians that the occupation has caused. In this case, the film follows a true story of how the Israeli Secret Service (an unseen force in this film) blackmailed ordinary women into turning against their community to become informants.
We begin on a mundane scene: Huda washes the hair of a client, Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi), while Reem’s baby lies nearby in a carrier. The two women gossip, and Reem complains about her husband, who aggravates her to no end and is constantly paranoid that she’s having an affair. Then, all of a sudden, Reem slumps down in her chair, and Huda pulls her hurriedly into a back room; Huda has drugged Reem, and proceeds to strip her naked, place her on a bed, and take pictures of her lying next to a nude male model Huda has hired. These photos become the smoking gun Huda needs to blackmail Reem: join her as an informant to the Israeli Secret Service, or have these photos leaked.
Huda’s Salon highlights how, in a society where women are disempowered, they are left particularly vulnerable to manipulation. Women are easier to shame into submission; Reem stands to lose so much social standing if she’s seen as sexually promiscuous that working with the occupation, no matter how much it sickens her, is worth considering. It’s a choice between helping the forces that are destroying your community, or allowing your community to destroy you. As desensitised as she is, at this point, to her own moral corruption, we learn that Huda, too, was once in a similar situation: she became an informant to cover up the fact that she was having an affair.
The film is split into two diverging narratives: one following Huda, the other Reem. After their initial meeting in the salon, they go their separate ways. Huda is kidnapped by Palestinian Freedom Fighters, who burn her male model to death and then take her to their base for questioning. She engages in a battle of wits with her interrogator, Hasan (Ali Suliman), who slowly comes to understand Huda’s impossible situation, even as he knows he’ll still have to kill her for her crimes.
Meanwhile, Reem nervously returns home to her husband, who is affectionate but demanding and selfish, asking his clearly distressed wife what’s for dinner tomorrow night instead of helping her to relax. (Huda explains to Hasan that she targeted women whose husbands were assholes because she knew they wouldn’t believe or support their wives if the photos were to leak.) Reem spends the two days over which the film is set looking over her shoulder, fearful that the Freedom Fighters who kidnapped Huda will come after her next.
Huda’s Salon is an effective thriller that feels almost like a horror movie, at times, because of the way director Hany Abu-Assad’s camera moves through space. When we’re with Reem, the camera often follows her from behind as she weaves through streets, alleyways, hallways, and doorframes. We’re just as nervous about what might be lurking around the corner as she is, because we’re turning those corners along with her. The camera is handheld, adding a nervous shake.
But Huda’s Salon has just as many smarts as it has thrills. That’s partly because of the neat use of dual protagonists. We experience the tension of Reem’s crippling fear when we’re with her; when we’re with Huda, who’s stuck in one room, the film slows down enough to think. Through the conversations between Huda and Hasan, Abu-Assad dives deeper on themes, such as the impossible choices facing Palestinians under occupation, and the impact this has on women in particular. In Huda and Hasan, we see two people dealing with the same terrible circumstances in opposite ways, slowly coming to an understanding of each other.
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