Review: ‘Huda’s Salon,’ starring Ali Suliman, Maisa Abd Elhadi and Manal Awad

April 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Maisa Abd Elhadi in “Huda’s Salon” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Huda’s Salon”

Directed by Hany Abu-Assad

Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Bethlehem in the West Bank, the dramatic film “Huda’s Salon” features an all-Middle Eastern cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An unsuspecting woman is blackmailed by her hair stylist into becoming a spy for the Palestinian Secret Service, while the stylist also becomes the target of government coercion.

Culture Audience: “Huda’s Salon” will appeal primarily to people interested in well-acted movies about espionage and betrayal, where a movie’s strong points outweigh the movie’s flaws.

Ali Suliman and Manal Awad in “Huda’s Salon” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Huda’s Salon” takes viewers on an often-uncomfortable journey in showing how gender politics are used in espionage and tactics to pressure people to commit certain betrayals. Although this drama is set in Bethlehem and the West Bank, where political battles still rage over whether Palestinians or Israelis have a right to the land, the messages in the story aren’t intrinsic to any particular nation, political belief or historical era. “Huda’s Salon” somewhat falters in the last third of the movie, but it leaves an impact on getting viewers to wonder how many people in real life have experienced what happens in this fictional movie.

Written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad, “Huda’s Salon” continues his pattern of making movies that blend personal dramas with political intrigue. His most critically acclaimed films so far are 2005’s “Paradise Now” (about two Palestinian men on a suicide bomb mission) and 2013’s “Omar” (about a Palestinian man caught up in love, betrayal and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts). Unlike those other movies, “Huda’s Salon” presents a mostly female perspective on how political/government battles can affect ordinary people.

“Huda’s Salon” begins with a brief, captioned introduction explaining the history of the West Bank conflicts. Bethlehem has been under Palestinian control since 1995, when the Israeli government ceded control to the Palestinian Authority. In 2002, the Palestinian Authority began construction of the Separation Wall around Bethlehem. The caption in the movie reads: “Within this wall, the Occupation soldiers have become invisible, and the inhabitants, women in particular, more vulnerable … Palestinians leaving and entering the West Bank are required [to have] a permit from the Occupation’s Secret Service.”

“Huda’s Salon” shows what happens when women are forced to join this secret service and how gender-based shame is used as blackmail. The movie begins with a deceptively calm scene of a woman getting her hair washed and styled by her longtime hairdresser. The client’s name is Reem (played by Maisa Abd Elhadi), a wife and mother in her late 20s, who has brought her infant daughter Lina to this appointment. Lina, who is Reem’s only child, is played by Watin Alwirah, Ayloul Lutfi, Julan Sweati, Salma Abu Srour and Yafa Abu Srour.

The owner of the salon is named Huda (played by Manal Awad), a divorced mother of three adult sons named Wajdi, Nabeel and Karam. Huda’s children are not seen in the movie, but it’s eventually revealed what type of relationship she has with her sons. In this salon scene that starts off as very tranquil, Huda and Reem are the only people seen in the salon.

Reem and Huda make small talk about Reem’s life. During this conversation, viewers find out that Reem is unhappily married to a jealous and controlling husband named Yousef (played by Jalal Masarwa), who is a doting father to Lina, but he is highly suspicious of what Reem does when Reem not at home. Yousef is also pressuring Reem to have another child, because he wants to have a son. Reem is on maternity leave from her job at a place called Rita’s Salon. Reem tells Huda that when Lina is older, Reem might open her own salon.

Huda seems open and friendly, but she has a sinister motive for wanting Reem to be the only customer in her salon at this time. Huda gives Reem a cup of tea, which is laced with an unnamed drug that is so powerful, it almost immediately renders Reem unconscious after she drinks it. Huda then summons a man named Said Al-Qazaz (played by Samer Bisharat), who has been hiding in a back room of the salon.

Huda and Said carry an unconscious Reem into the back room, where they place Reem on a bed, strip her naked, and open her eyelids. Said then gets naked too, and he stages a scene to make it look like he and Reem are engaged in a sexual tryst. Huda takes Polaroid photos during this twisted photo shoot.

When Reem regains consciousness, Huda coldly shows her the photos and tells Reem that Huda is part of the Occupation’s Secret Service. Huda then says that if Reem doesn’t do what the Secret Service says, Huda will make sure that Reem’s husband Youssef will see these scandalous photos. Because adultery by a woman can result in punishment by death in this culture, Reem is horrified and sickened by her choices on what to do in this situation.

Huda threatens Reem: “If you tell your husband or anyone else, the Secret Service will be ruthless. Merciless. And your daughter will pay the price. We’re in the same boat.” A terrified Reem quickly leaves the salon with baby Lina to go home and contemplate her next move and what she will do.

Huda might seem to have the upper hand in this situation, but she is also vulnerable. Her loyalties to the Secret Service come under scrutiny. And it’s enough to say that her life is put in danger too. She’s kidnapped, held captive, and interrogated by a government agent named Hasan (played by Ali Suliman), who knows a lot of Huda’s secrets.

The rest of “Huda’s Salon” alternates between showing what Reem experiences and what Huda experiences during their respective ordeals. The movie has the most suspense in Reem’s storyline, which is the best part of “Huda’s Salon.” Much of Huda’s storyline drags the story down, because it consists largely of her being questioned while she’s sitting in a chair. Huda experiences some violence and other torture, but it’s not the type of mental anguish that Reem experiences.

Many scenes in “Huda’s Salon” are difficult to watch for anyone who doesn’t like to see the inhumane treatment that people can inflict on others. The movie also doesn’t give easy answers, because Huda is not portrayed as a complete villain, but as someone who can be considered a victim too. Throughout this saga, “Huda’s Salon” never lets viewers forget how gender roles in this West Bank society have everything to do with how women are targeted and manipulated in these corrupt political schemes.

As the psychologically tormented Reem, Abd Elhadi gives a very believable and riveting performance, which is the heart and soul of the film. The rest of the cast members give solid performances, but their characters are not as well-developed as Reem’s character. Despite some pacing issues, “Huda’s Salon” succeeds in keeping viewers curious about what will happen at the end of the movie. The conclusion of “Huda’s Salon” might not be satisfying for people who expect this type of movie to follow a certain formula, but “Huda’s Salon” is meant to reflect the reality that life doesn’t always turn out the way that people want.

IFC Films released “Huda’s Salon” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 4, 2022.

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