One doesn’t expect to go into a screening of two small-budget Palestinian dramas and to come out hating Disney and Netflix even more… but what I learned at Thursday night’s double screening of Samar Qupty’s narrative short Hush and Hanadi Elyan’s feature length Salma’s Home is that one must always be prepared to despise the Big Mouse.
Both directors were present for the screening, as was Salma’s Home producer Nathan Bennett (also Elyan’s husband). The showing at Emerson Paramount Theatre was the world premiere for Hush, a 20-minute short about an unplanned premarital pregnancy in Palestine.
Professional, slick, hilarious, and built around an economic cast, Salma’s Home feels like high-quality Turkish television at times: three women, two of whom married the same man, are forced to live together through various unfortunate circumstances—and they must muster enough positivity to come together and save their newly shared home. Salma (Juliet Awad) is an old woman who is struggling to meet her mortgage payments with a home-run bakery after her ex-husband, Bakri, dies. Her daughter, Farah (Sameera Asir), has some marital problems of her own and a drinking problem. And the newly widowed and struggling Instagram influencer Lamia (Rania Kurdi) married Bakri after he divorced Salma… only made more awkward by the fact that the divorce was never finalized, so now both wives’ names are on the house title.
So, what does Mickey have to do with these films? Both were produced with tight, self-funded micro-budgets– Hush in Palestine, Salma’s Home in Jordan. This is where Disney and Netflix come into the picture, at least directly in the case of the feature film. When production started on Salma’s Home, two other films were filming in Jordan—a new Star Wars movie and something from Netflix—according to Bennett. So, their equipment and crews were “stolen” from them by the larger and greedier American production corporations. (There was also a literal robbery on set, according to Bennett. Interpret that how you will). Left without their equipment and crews, the production had to turn to local film schools for support. Thankfully, their finished product doesn’t wear its traumas on its sleeves.
Salma’s Home knows its strengths and restrains its filmmaking as such. The cinematography is rather plain, with a steady camera not unlike a television drama. That’s not a slight but a compliment: the clever script is where the film excels and the filmmaking itself doesn’t distract from that. The three women—an elderly poor woman clinging in some capacity to tradition, a widow Instagram influencer living a double life, and a hardworking and alcoholic mother with a lazy husband—all don’t quite fit into the boxes one would think they would. They move in and out of stereotypes with ease, together shattering any monomythic ideas about being an Arab woman. All three end up being endearing and deep characters, even if it takes more time for Lamia’s likability to show through.
In addition to directing Hush, Qupty also stars as Nadine, the supportive best friend to Nur (Misan Samara), who’s having her first pregnancy scare. Colors pop; the music rocks; and the sets, often filmed in tight close-ups as if not to distract real people in the background, feel more recorded than staged. While Qupty’s a seasoned acting talent, I imagine most viewers could be fooled into thinking this was her tenth short as a writer-director instead of her first.
Hush was an ideal screening partner to the Jordanian feature. The two stand out in the Boston Palestine Film Festival for their non-Occupation-specific subject materials. (That’s not to say it’s invisible—it’s not, especially in Hush). Both films are also creatively led by women and center on the stories of Arab women. “That’s our goal: to see Arab women as peers, not through Orientalism… just as humans,” said Elyan of her film, but it may as well apply to Hush too. They aren’t the only festival films centering the lives of Arab and Palestinian women—most of the narrative films I’ve seen at the festival actually star and/or are directed by women—but these two approach the subjects the most gingerly, with active rather than passive female subjects who are capable of life outside of oppression. These women are fully thought-out characters rather than means to a plot-driven end.
That Disney and Netflix make it harder for such endearing films to make it to our screens is but another strike against them… and all of that for another Star Wars and what, an Underground Six sequel or the next Red Notice?
dir. Hanadi Elyan
dir. Samar Qupty
Screened Thursday, 10/20 as part of the 2022 Boston Palestine Film Festival