Arab Audience and Critics Riled Over Controversial Film
The controversy over Palestinian-Dutch director Hany Abu-Assad’s “Huda's Salon” will not be the last furor over an Arab film. Not long ago, the film "Amira" and its director Mohamed Diab (more on “Amira” can be found in Al Jadid, Vol. 25, Nos. 80-81, 2021) met with similar disapproval. Most of the outrage against these two films did not center on the plots, themes, acting, directing, special effects, or cinematography, but on politics and what they considered immoral elements — which in “Huda’s Salon” is female nudity. The Palestinian creative community, including in the diaspora, has not been spared from harsh, and at times treasonous, accusations. Reasonable critics dismiss this latest controversy as being uninformed, superficial, and ideological. But the long-term consequences of these "populist" campaigns against Palestinian cinema carry intellectual costs. Many Palestinian talents, whether in the diaspora or inside Palestine, may retreat or abandon creative attempts to further the interests of their communities, given the chilling treatment met by their fellow directors. Despite the opposition's reasoning, profound ideological legacies of Palestinian politics still direct and guide some activists' campaigns that continue the old tactics and direct cultural politics to agree with their rejectionist political positions.
The criticisms surrounding “Huda’s Salon” abound. Abu-Assad is best known for his previous films, the Oscar-nominated and winner of the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film, “Paradise Now” (2006), and the Oscar-nominated “Omar” (2013). Like his other titles, his newest film continues with a new chapter on the recurring theme of betrayal. This time, viewers are thrust into the stories of two Palestinian women: Huda (Manal Awad), the owner of a salon who has been recruiting women to spy for Israel, and her latest victim Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a young mother who finds herself blackmailed and on the run.
Abu-Assad’s fast-paced thriller takes place in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. After drugging Reem, taking nude photographs of her in staged compromising positions with another man, and blackmailing her into Israeli service, Huda gets captured by the Palestinian resistance, which has been working to track down the women she has employed as spies. Reem, who knows the resistance will soon be on her tail, must decide whether to tell her husband what happened and risk the scorn of a patriarchal society or be forced to turn to the Israelis.
Despite not being the central topic of the film, a large outcry against “Huda’s Salon” broke out over the issue of nudity in the early scenes of the film. The Palestinian Ministry of Culture denounced the film, divorced it from any association with Palestinians and Palestine, and refused screenings. Some Palestinian official institutions have also taken legal action against the film and everyone who worked on it, according to Al Modon.
Many lambasted the film as pornographic. The director of the Jerusalem Film Festival went as far as to accuse Abu-Assad of using nudity as a commercial tactic, saying in a statement, “The film’s nude scenes for the director are a ticket to fame and marketing the film at the expense of the Palestinian cause. It is a fame that contradicts our moral values and all human values,” as cited in Al Modon.
But like other Arab films with scenes toeing the line of what is or isn’t deemed acceptable in society, much of the opposition to nudity in “Huda’s Salon” comes from a reactionary audience who did not watch the film in its entirety, but only reacted to the clip that surfaced on social media. Those who did watch the film found the biggest issue was not in the nudity, but the director’s handling of it.
According to Jawad Boulous in Al Quds, nudity scenes in films are fine as long as they serve a purpose to the film’s message or art. In “Huda’s Salon,” however, the use of nudity did not contribute to the flow of the “drama” or strengthen the messages of the film, according to him. At the same time, he questions the accusation that the film is pornographic when the scene under fire clearly depicts a “heinous crime against a victim.”
Rather, Boulous’ main concern with the inclusion of the scene lay elsewhere, in Abu-Assad’s double standards towards the Arab world and a Western audience. Boulous wrote, “My feeling was strengthened after we learned that the director singled out the Arab world with a copy of the film free of the aforementioned scene of nudity while preparing copies that include the same scene, in order to show them in other festivals of the world and its “civilized” countries.” This earned accusations that the director was trying to “hit the social and moral fabric by filming scenes that Western cinema does not portray…[a] ticket to fame and marketing at the expense of the Palestinian cause, which contradicts the teachings of the Islamic religion and the conservative traditions of the Palestinian people.”
Other Arab critics similarly pointed out the film’s two-faced presentation. Elias Khoury, as cited in Al Modon, wrote, “The idea of removing a scene in the version that will be shown in the Arab world while preserving it in the version presented in the West raises many questions, not to say that it is provocative. Just doing this means that the director speaks two languages and considers the Arab audience as minor and presents another “civilized” version to the Western audience.”
However, it should also be taken into account that if a director does not delete these scenes, it will be removed by authoritarian, social, and religious censors or the entire film will be banned, as is common in the Arab world.
The film also suffers from a creative standpoint, according to Boulous, who says that Abu-Assad failed to present new creative material that would shed light on this “old and new issue that Palestine has been experiencing since the first day of its occupation—the issue of working for Israel—in innovative and non-consumerist angles.” He adds that the film aims to cause “deliberate confusion” with a weak message that “it is possible that whoever you consider an executioner is a victim himself.” He considers this a conversation that is unnecessary for Palestinians and their struggle, where “the occupation is always the executioner, and the victims are Palestine, its land, and its people.” At the same time, Boulous claims the film fails to address the injustice Palestinian women face and in the end does nothing to illuminate their crisis aside from furthering their oppression.
Salim al-Beik in Al Quds offered interesting criticisms of the film and Abu-Assad’s ‘trilogy of betrayal’ as a whole. Abu-Assad’s previous award-winning films “Paradise Now” and “Omar” share the topic of working for the occupation. Themes of collaboration with the enemy are the norm in his works, making the poor reception of its central theme in “Huda’s Salon” surprising. But the problem, in the words of al-Beik, was not the topic itself, but the “quality of the film” and its “crude intent to provoke.”
“Huda’s Salon suffers because it fails to handle the complex humane and national issue of Israel’s recruitment of Palestinians well,” he said, and commented on the lack of artistic and aesthetic spirit: “I am not saying that this trilogy deals with problematic topics, but rather that it is problematic in its handling…The problem is escalating, and the quality is waning due to the unexpected poor quality of the film, script, and directing, regardless of its subject.”
On another note, al-Beik points out that with the release of “Huda’s Salon,” Abu-Assad’s trilogy goes from portraying individual cases of national betrayal to indicting a collective moral failing. , Taken together, the films suggest that betrayal is a widespread and prevalent issue in Palestinian society, casting skepticism of the will of the resistance and casting blame among Palestinians.
In fact, the portrayal of the Palestinian resistance makes up one of several harms that critics fear the film will propagate. Hovik Habashian in Independent Arabia wrote, “Abu-Assad is not merciful with his community and people, hence the outrage against him and some of his recent films, as he enters us into the Palestinian house in an attempt to expose the people who live under occupation. In his cinema, the oppressed may also be the oppressor.” In the words of Boulous, “The phenomenon of lack of confidence, as we note in recent years, is one of the most important factors of defeat. I think the dangers of this tragedy, in these particular times, were absent from the minds of the filmmakers.”
The controversy surrounding "Huda's Salon" offers a case of new millennium censorship not necessarily by the Palestinian Authority with its jurisdiction over the West Bank but also by some private extensions inside and outside the territories. This censorship resembles what censors have been increasingly practiced in other Arab countries, where censorship and boycotts led by societal groups ban creative activities, with the help of social media. The criticisms against “Huda’s Salon” of immorality for commercial gain, collectivized betrayal, and its equating of the occupier with the occupied is just one facet of the obstacles Palestinian creatives must navigate. These campaigns are bound to stifle new talents and deny Palestinians and non-Palestinians an overlook of the real life of Palestinians under occupation.
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