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Stylist, Soldier, Spy: “Huda’s Salon” Follows an Informant in the West Bank (Review)

Image courtesy of IFC Films An IFC Films release

Huda is a Palestinian spy working undercover as a hairdresser in the West Bank. She was recruited by the Israeli government and tasked with finding other Palestinian women to serve as informants. Wily and shrewd, Huda blackmails her hair salon patrons (deliberately women with abusive husbands) into joining her efforts. Huda’s Salon, masterfully directed by Hany Abu-Assad, is a daring and subtle examination of the role of women in war.

Abu-Assad demonstrates the absurdity of war without making it a caricature. In Huda’s Salon, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn’t ravage towns and bombs don’t take bites out of the streets; war is portrayed as more of a low rumble, a look-over-the-shoulder paranoia, an ambient dread. People go about their days, feed their babies, and get haircuts, all with a constant fear of the future.

Image courtesy of IFC Films An IFC Films release

Abu-Assad is similarly understated in his portrayal of the women caught in the crossfire. While they are powerful, they are not the Hollywood cliché of patriarchy-smashing action heroes. Instead, they fight more quotidian battles against the contradictory social expectations put upon them by a conservative society at war. Huda’s Salon shows scenes where women regret giving birth to girls, lie to their husbands about having cancer for fear of being divorced, and are disqualified for being university graduates. When one character’s husband says casually that “women who don’t give birth keep their beauty,” his wife quips back that she wished his mother had kept her beauty.  Presented with an earnest – even tender – naturalism, Abu-Assad demonstrates how women in Palestine are forced to develop the resilience to survive in a hostile environment while still being expected to remain the familial cornerstone. Femininity under duress.

Huda, in particular, exemplifies this tension. She isn’t portrayed as a bastion of virtue as women often are, but as a traitor. When Huda gets caught by the Palestinian military and interrogated, her own countrymen drag her into a dark basement in her pajamas. She sits across from her interrogator, a garish lamp between them and the Polaroids of all the women she blackmailed fanned out in front of her. Her interrogator (played by Ali Suliman, Jack Ryan), grisly and debonair, tries various tactics to subtly berate her into giving up the names of her employers. She outwits him for most of it, saying that she’s not afraid to die and thereby stripping him of an intimidation tactic against her. Insufficiently de-fanged, he points out her status as a divorcee and lies that her sons want her dead for her treason. In this final coup de grace, he reaches for the worst things a woman can be in that society – a bad wife and mother. Here, she breaks.

Image courtesy of IFC Films An IFC Films release

Though gender features prominently in this scene, Abu Assad uses it to underscore the fragility of moral justifications for war. Stopping short of pushing a pacifistic message, he shows the absurdity of two people from the same country trying to kill each other. Huda justifies her spying as “empowering” other women to escape abusive marriages, though she is really just exploiting their volatile home lives for her own gain. Her interrogator justifies his actions as vindicating the death of a friend killed at the hands of the Israeli army, though really he is quelling his survivors’ guilt. In perfect allegory for the nonsensical nature of war, both of them smirk at each other’s feeble justifications for violence, and yet the violence persists.

Patiently thrilling, Huda’s Salon is as much a riveting story as it is a snapshot of tensions between countries. It is political without being preachy. Abu-Assad manages to take a light touch while confronting the moral inconsistencies of conflict.  In one of the final scenes of the film, Huda’s interrogator points out that innocent people will die for the sake of exterminating those who betray the Palestinian state. Likening traitors to a cancer, he points out that “chemotherapy also kills healthy cells” but ultimately eliminates the cancer. In war, governments inculcate this ends-justify-the-means philosophy and employ morally charged language meant to dehumanize the other side. In Huda’s Salon Abu-Assad holds a mirror up to this behavior and forces us to look at ourselves.

Image courtesy of IFC Films An IFC Films release

Huda’s Salon is in select theaters and on video on demand platforms on Friday, March 4, 2022.