TIFF Review: 'Huda's Salon' Lays Bare the Absurdity of War

Directed by Hany Abu-Assad

Starring Manal Awad, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Ali Suliman

BY Alisha MughalPublished Sep 10, 2021

The first ten minutes of Huda's Salon are a revelation. This movie works through a simultaneously sympathetic and satirical lens to subtly show how the mundanity of everyday life intersects with the violence of war, ultimately working to lay bare war's absurdity. This movie is an emotional rollercoaster, in the best way imaginable.

Written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad, Huda's Salon takes place in occupied Palestine, on Bethlehem's West Bank. The film begins as an unassuming domestic drama — think Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles — in a salon operated by Huda (Manal Awad). Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi) is a young mother of a baby girl, Lina, and is there for a haircut. As Huda washes Reem's hair, the women chat in a way familiar to any woman who's ever been to a hair salon. Things abruptly take a turn toward nail-biting thriller as Huda drugs Reem, takes a photo of her supine body in a compromising situation and uses it to blackmail Reem to be a spy for the Israeli Secret Service. Reem, horrified, escapes with her baby, without having her haircut. Huda is then apprehended by the Palestinian Resistance, led by Hasan (Ali Suliman). What unfolds next is a simultaneously wrenching and wryly comedic series of events wherein Huda tells her own tale of survival, which mirrors Reem's desperate struggle toward protecting her ridiculous husband and sweet baby. 

This film excels in every aspect, but its most stunning feat is how it is delicately able to tell so many iterations of the same story of survival in face of violent occupation. Abu-Assad shows us — through Reem, Huda and Hasan — the extent to which a person will go to save themselves, and why they might bring on the downfall of their comrades.

That Huda's Salon is delicate means that it shows, through the minute movements first of Huda and then of Reem, how terror appears in the body — a brilliant tracking shot shows Reem's hand pressed and running against a brick wall as she walks home with Lina in her arms, catatonic, trying to think of an escape from her situation. The camera lingers over its female characters — not in a voyeuristic way, but in a patient way, showcasing Awad's and Abd Elhadi's prowess as actors, allowing them the space to think and unravel.

Abu-Assad allows a fullness to his characters, an autonomy (which is a terse word for respect and sympathy), all while showing how the facelessness of war shatters so many unique lives in so many similar ways. This film is a masterpiece — you can't miss it.

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9 to 18. Get info about in-person and online screenings at the festival website.

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