(Written by Allison Brown)
Living in the United States, women take for granted the basic human rights we are given, and mundane activities that can be done with ease. For Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi), who lives in Bethlehem, West Bank, Occupied Palestine, a simple trip to the hair salon puts her in life-threatening danger. It is hard to imagine life in a war torn country. The events portrayed in director Hany Abu-Assad’s thriller Huda’s Salon are arduous to watch.
Without warning, Reem is drugged by a complimentary coffee, carried to a back room, and stripped while an unknown man nearly rapes her fully unconscious. This all happens with her innocent infant daughter, Lina, in the room, and she is present throughout every hazardous twist and turn of the plot. This added a level of uncomfortable child endangerment that I am not sure would be acceptable in Western cinema. All of these horrific proceedings are sickeningly orchestrated by a woman, Huda (Manal Awad), who takes sordid photographs to later use as blackmail towards her controlling husband, Yousef (Jalal Masarwa). If Reem does not support the Israeli secret service, her life will be tarnished forever. She is equally screwed if the resistance assumes Reem is a traitor to Palestine, and her life would be on the line. It turns out Huda has done this all many times before. The peril spirals further once Huda is captured by the resistance, and Reem’s compromising polaroid (along with that of other women) are at the mercy of the enemy.
Huda’s Salon is unrelenting in its poor treatment of women, and painful scenes. Early on, a man is set ablaze and runs screaming into the wall to eventually fall on the floor and burn to death. The gritty reality portrayed for females in Palestine society is agonizingly dark. In a segment where Reem goes to a clinic, the audience overhears the doctor deliver the news to another patient that she will be having a baby girl. The woman begs for this to not be true, “Oh God…a girl..a fourth girl! Are you sure? Is there another test?” This scene broke me; it is absolutely heartbreaking that women in Palestinian culture are so devalued.
The limitations on women in this society are inexorable. One woman would “rather die than get a divorce;” it is insinuated that another is too opinionated, told by a man to “let ISIS set you straight.” A family member tells Reem that “women who don’t give birth keep their beauty,” while she holds a child in her arms. It is also a law that Reem is not allowed to travel out of the country due to her brother-in-law’s incarceration. He is not even a blood relative, but Reem is at a detriment because another man made a poor choice. I can’t imagine being in any of these women’s shoes; life in Palestine seems unbearable.
Huda’s Salon questions whether or not what is said is reliable, and who the audience should side with apart from Reem. The resistance are criminals without mercy standing up for the freedom of Palestine, and the Israeli secret service (represented by Huda) must believe they have good intentions yet blackmail blameless women. This is clearly a commentary on the two-sided political Palestian-Israel conflict, though I’m not at liberty to comment with bias as a Jewish woman.
The beginning of Huda’s Salon keeps the audience on edge without missing a beat. I thought I would love the film, but by the halfway point it began to drag. There is too much time spent cutting back and forth to the extended interrogation scene once Huda is caught. Huda offers an explanation for her horrid feats, but who knows if it is the truth, or a story to garner sympathy and renounce guilt. Watching Reem constantly on the run from the resistance is compelling, and perhaps a better balance could have been drawn. The film also ends in far too abrupt a manner. The final information offered from the resistance is not fully confirmed as truth, and the audience is left in limbo as to whether or not there is a final resolution. In some films, this works; here, it just seems like another level of pessimism to add to the story. Huda’s Salon has so much potential, and I can see why IFC picked it up, but perhaps it isn’t too late to be reworked a bit for a wider audience. The content and story are fantastic, but the film could use a bit of refinement.
Huda’s Salon screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.