Dir. Tarzan Nasser, Arab Nasser
Starring: Victoria Balitska, Maisa Abdelhadi, Hiam Abbass, Manal Awad, Mirna Sakhla, Nelly Abou Sharaf, Wedad Al Naser, Raneem Al Daoud, Dina Shebar, Samira Al Aseer, Reem Talhami, Raya Al Khateeb, Tarzan Nasser
Review By Greg Klymkiw
What's a gal gotta do when she needs a nice beauty parlour "do" and a lion pilfered from the Gaza Zoo is the reason the streets are full gunfire and explosions from local criminal gangs, a whack o' cops and Hamas security forces all shooting at each other for control of said Panthera leo. What else can she do? She sits and waits her turn for a spin in the hairdresser's chair. It beats getting shot or blown to bits.
So herein we find, not one, but thirteen Palestinian women stuck inside a sweltering salon under siege - its hydro eventually cut off (as per usual in Gaza), then half-heartedly reignited with a tiny generator which, in turn, is also shut down by the raging forces of manhood outside. The whole joint soon needs to be lit with oil lamps since a (relatively) peaceful, leisurely sunny afternoon has been transformed into a battle zone and the sun has long since gone down.
The proprietor of said establishment (Victoria Balitska) is an expat Russian who needs to balance hairdressing duties with trying to discipline her restless little girl and the assistant hairdresser (Maisa And Elhadi) is juggling a persnickety client whilst making endless phone calls to her husband (Tarzan Nasser), the man who stole the lion and now proudly parades it up and down the den-of-thieves courtyard.
Nobody ever said it'd be easy running a beauty parlour in Gaza, but when our proprietor is asked why she didn't stay in Russia after meeting her Palestinian hubby-to-be in a Moscow University, she replies that it wouldn't be any better in Russia and maybe, just maybe, it's even a bit better in Gaza. (Things must be bad under the gangster state run by Putin.) Besides, she's lived in Gaza long enough to consider herself Palestinian.
As the shenanigans amongst the usually-layabout gangsters, over-zealous cops and bumbling Hamas security forces continues, the violence outside steadily mounts, not unlike the increasingly frayed nerves and accelerating claustrophobia within the beauty parlour. Make no mistake, either. These are smart, sassy and brassy women who all realize that the chaos of their existence is due to the macho antics of their men-folk. In spite of their clear differences, a number of them poignantly discover a fair bit of common ground.
Chatting up a storm, gossiping and trading barbed quips with each other, they're indeed a motley crew and though all are microcosmically representative of the women of Gaza, these are no mere "types" assembled here. Such is the superb screenplay and great performances that manage to deftly flesh out each and every woman as finely wrought and amply shaded characters.
We have a pill-popping, sex-obsessed "modern" woman (Manal Awad) trying to get a rise out of her hijab-adorned neighbour (Mirna Sakhla), an attractive middle-aged woman (Hiam Abbas) hoping to take years off to prepare for a "date" with her divorce lawyer, and among others, a pregnant young woman close to breaking water, a bride-to-be beleaguered by a domineering Mom and a seemingly bitter chip(s)-on-her-shoulder critic of all things patriarchal. Each of these characters trade some of the best-written, biting and often hilarious barbs I've heard in a movie in some time.
As such, Dégradé, the debut feature written and directed by the supremely talented twin Nasser Brothers (one of whom, Tarzan, plays the only male character of some substance), paints a telling portrait of what it means for women to live under constant siege as the mostly unemployed menfolk are insanely looking for any excuse to discharge their firearms. In this case, the excuse is especially flimsy and as one of the women quips, Hamas is supposed to be fighting for Gaza's freedom, but is instead, moronically looking for a lion.
I love the fact that virtually the entire movie is set in the salon. Yes, it's occasionally suffocating, but only as it should be given the circumstances. The Nassers and their actors have blocked out the action superbly and cinematographer Eric Devin deftly uses his camera, allowing for a surprising series of wider tableaux in addition to nicely placed two-shots and closeups. Devin also has the unenviable, but beautifully accomplished task of exposing gorgeous, pungent images in a variety of light conditions - a good deal of it incredibly dark during the final third of the film.
Given the delectable ping-pong dialogue, the Nassers are not unlike some bizarre Palestinian amalgam of George Cukor, for the superb observational properties of female characters and actresses, with Howards Hawks, for the wonderful sense of movement through both dialogue and the various ins and outs within the frame. The cutting by editors Sophie Reine and Eyas Salman not only moves us through all the necessary dramatic beats, but does so with both skill and aplomb. A great soundscape also fleshes out the world within and outside the salon.
Dégradé never lets politics get in the way of its great character-driven story. It doesn't have to. The horrendous conditions in Gaza are captured beautifully within the microcosmic mise-en-scène. The madness of the situation is always in the backdrop without the usual heavy-handed slags against Israel and refreshingly, more than a few salient digs at Hamas. All we need to know is how utterly insane it is to be forced into living this way and most importantly, we get a vital portrait of women under fire, as much from Israel as from Palestinian forces (legal, official and otherwise) and always the result of an overriding patriarchy which is as predominant on both sides of the Gaza-Israeli divide.
It's the way of the world and certainly the way of this world.
Men will be boys and boys love playing with guns.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4 Stars
Dégradé, a Search Engine Films release, receives its North American Premiere in the TIFF Discovery series during TIFF 2015. For dates, times and tix, visit the TIFF website HERE.