Passing by, “Huda’s Salon” looks like any other hair salon any place hair salons can be found.
Yes, it’s in the Middle East, so the all glass front has a coating of floral sun tinting decor. But inside, Huda banters with her clients. Gossip and griping about customers who “go to Youtube and copy haircuts — badly,” rather than coming in, joking and even dispensing marital advice comes with the rinse, trim and styling.
But the conversation trails off as Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi) finishes the tea Huda offers her “special” clients. And when she dozes off, Huda springs into actions that will make your jaw drop.
“Huda’s Salon” is a West Bank story “inspired by true events,” a tale of a Bethlehem Palestinian hair dresser who drugs select customers, calls in a male collaborator, totes women like Reem into the back where they strip her and pose her nude in bed with the nude man Huda pays to carry out this scheme.
The Polaroid picture will tell a story that won’t just get the victim shamed. In a patriarchal Islamic culture, it could get her killed, if she doesn’t kill herself from fear and trauma about the experience.
Reem’s awakened “How COULD you?” earns a curt “We want you to work with us” from Huda (Manal Awad). Reem is being blackmailed by the Israeli Secret Police to work as an informant, forced to become “a traitor” — which could get her killed if she’s found out — by the threat of exposure for infidelity, which could also get her killed.
Palestinian-Dutch writer-director Hany Abu-Assad, who made the gripping and revealing drama about two guys on a suicide-bombing mission “Paradise Now,” tells this harrowing story from two points of view.
Reem — pretty, in her late 20s, hard-pressed for cash, with a baby girl and a boorish husband (Jalal Masarwa) who already suspects her of being unfaithful — hurries home in shock, trying to process this life-threatening betrayal. Will she call the contact number Huda gave her and start informing on her own people for money? Is there anyone she can tell, anyone who can help her scheme a way out of this dilemma?
And we see Huda, as the common usage puts it, “go through some things.” It turns out the Palestinian Authority’s own underground “secret police” have been watching her shop. They bust in, grab her, and next thing we know, she’s in a dark basement, being offered a cigarette and facing her own reckoning — an interrogation about what she’s been doing, who she does it for and why.
“Huda’s Salon” cuts back and forth between Huda’s fatalistic, “I’m prepared to die…I’ve been expecting it” questioning and Reem’s increasingly fraught scramble to find a way “out.” Huda’s story kind of backs up her fatalism. But as Reem has a baby, a husband she can’t talk to and extended family that might have one person who buys into her story, if she’s lucky, we fear for her and her baby. We’ve already heard of one victim who committed suicide.
“It’s easier to occupy a society that is already repressing itself,” Huda muses between puffs of her proffered cigarette. When you’ve got a secret police designed to intimidate your people to keep them in line, and carry out “extrajudicial killings” when they aren’t, when your religion oppresses women to such a degree that their lives are forfeit for merely being accused of transgressions, all their Israeli oppressors have to do is apply a little extra pressure and a few shekels to maintain their notion of “order.”
Abu-Assad keeps the puppet-masters unseen, with mere glimpses of Israeli helicopters and “the dividing line wall,” the sounds of jet flyovers and a single voice of the unsympathetic, transactional Israeli “contact” over the phone.
The filmmaker maintains suspense through the interplay between the two points of view. We see the consequences of treachery play out before Huda is grabbed, a gruesome death by gasoline and match. We know what Huda is up against, even as she matter-of-factly explains how she selected her targets.
“I chose women who are married to a—-les.”
I didn’t wholly buy Awad’s portrayal of the hairdresser/spy’s resigned bravado. We only get a hint that she can be shaken and scared, and the interrogator (Ali Suliman) tries the “good cop” thing entirely too much. Yes, Huda can be pitied, too. It’s not like she jumped into this treachery of her own accord. But impending grisly, painful death would rattle any character not played by Tom Cruise.
Elhadi’s Reem gives us shock and the mad mental math she runs through as she tries, almost entirely isolated and on her own, to figure out some escape plan in which she lives, or at least her child is cared for. Elhadi lets us see terror mixed with resignation. This is the corner the Israelis and Huda, and she (by marrying the wrong guy) and her culture have painted her into.
Abu-Assad’s dabbled in Hollywood (the Kate Winslet/Idris Elba thriller “The Mountain Between Us”). But his true calling is telling stories from Palestine, tales that explain the people and the place and the psychology of life under oppressive, racist long-term occupation.
“Huda’s Salon” is a film that reminds us that whatever we’re too distracted to notice about the Occupied Territories, whatever whitewashing or one-siding says about the problems there, the consequences of this festering injustice are not something the Israelis can just wall up or rinse away.
Cast: Manal Awad, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Ali Suliman and Jalal Masarwa
Credits: Scripted and directed by Hany Abu-Assad. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:31