It's no coincidence that Habibi (a story of love between Arabs in the Israeli-occupied West Bank) was given its TIFF press screening on September 11, 2011. The film follows Layla and Qays (Maisa Abd Elhadi and Kais Nashif), two Palestinian, star-crossed loves fighting to be together amid Hammas demonstrations, air strikes, Israeli snipers and worst of all, their families, who just don't understand love.
You can guess the circumstances of their forbidden affair, in what could be seen as an Arabic Pride & Prejudice. All the Mid-East tropes are present, from the taboo of women's education to public displays of affection, to Islamic propaganda and, of course, violence.
But, remembered in context as a film funded by the United Arab Emirates (which has imprisoned people for public displays of affection), Habibi (which translates to "darling" or "my beloved" in Arabic) is an extremely brave film. While director Youssef's camera never shows any indecencies (not even a kiss), there's a level of intimacy that's achieved between actors Elhadi and Nashif.
Glances and touches are charged with more sexual energy than a belly dancer's hips. In addition, Youssef takes great pains to personify Layla and Qay's love in the form of poetry, ebbing tides, spray-painted graffiti and even a cigarette burned into skin. The cinematography has a magical gloss to it and the pacing wastes none of the audience's time.
While there isn't much new in terms of narrative, Habibi is one of the more courageous films to emerge from the Arab world in recent memory, and director Susan Youssef will surely be one to watch in the coming years. (eOne)