TIFF Review: 'Dégradé'

(Palestine/France/Qatar, 85 min.)
Dir. Tarzan and Arab Nasser
Starring: Hiam Abbas, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Manal Awad, Dina Shebar, Mirna Sakhla, Victoria Balitska
Programme: Discovery (North American Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF

Anyone who’s asked “Where are the women?” at the movies and at previous festivals had better grab a ticket to Dégradé. This strong film driven by an impressive ensemble of actresses lets festivalgoers put their money where their mouth is and support films fuelled by female characters. The urgency of Dégradé is apparent in every frame as directors Tarzan and Arab Nasser (twin brothers) create a uniquely feminist space within the larger tumult of Gaza and patriarchal traditions of the Middle East. This is bold, shrewd filmmaking.

Dégradé features an ensemble of thirteen actresses who play women stuck at Christine’s Beauty Salon during one tense afternoon in the Gaza Strip. The film isolates the action to the single setting of the beauty parlor and in turn creates a tense, claustrophic microcosm of the war outside as the women, who come from all walks of life, create their own war as the tension mounts. The ensemble includes Hiam Abbas as Eftikhar, a bitter divorcée who turns heads at the shop with her fading looks, milky skin, and willingness to bare her shoulders before the crowd. Eftikhar is a fiery commandante who knows she holds a status over the other women, but whether it’s wealth or privilege, Dégradé doesn’t say. She just wields a special influence and unique sense of entitlement in the salon that causes sparks to fly as the temperature rises.

Eftikhar clashes most with Wedad (Maisa Abd Elhadi), the assistant beautician who does her hair at a glacial pace as her boyfriend distracts her on the phone. Other notable and palpably allegorical figures include Salma (Dina Shebar), a bride-to-be who occupies the chair next to Eftikhar and finds herself torn between a clash of values from her mother (Reem Talhami) and her future mother-in-law (Huda Imam). Throw in a devotedly religious woman (Mirna Sakhla), a motormouth drug-addict (Manal Awad), and a woman in labour (Samira Al Aseer) and there’s a fine potpourri of tragicomic players for a simmering pot of ideological tensions. And then there’s Christine (Victoria Balitska), the Russian salon owner who plays the voice of reason despite being the outsider. She’s the strongest of the bunch, cool and level-headed, and fiercely determined just to get through the day and keep the customers happy.

A happy customer and a straight haircut don’t come easily, though, when violence rocks Gaza and shakes the beauty parlor both literally and figuratively throughout the day. The film takes a real 2007 event in which a man from a Gaza crime syndicate stole a lion from the zoo and paraded it around as a pet, thus inciting Hamas to declare war and reclaim the liberated lioness.  (The lioness, a vital character, arguably plays the fourteenth and assumes the most symbolic role of all.) The intimidating lioness first prowls by the salon when the mobster, Ahmed (Tarazen Nasser), who also happens to be Wedad’s boyfriend, sets up camp across the thoroughfare and ominously guards his woman with a lion and a gun. What purpose, besides intimidation, Ahmed seeks with this charade is unclear, but the shaken look on Wedad’s face as she calls him and asks him to remove the lion from the premises offers an uneasy omen that Ahmed is not a man to mess with.

Neither is the Hamas. Dégardé launches into a violent war as the Hamas opens fire on the neighbourhood in an overzealous mission to reclaim the lion. The women soon find themselves boarded up in the salon and closed off from the gunfire that rages in the streets. The directors withhold all visual cues to the offscreen action and instead let the shock of the violence simmer on the tense faces of the thirteen women who try to hold themselves together as another attack explodes in their backyards.

The war outside creates a war within as fissures divide the women, all of whom become markedly defined by identity politics. Religion, values, and tradition let bullets fly as the women take aim at one another, finding differences with which to wound and blame the others while protecting themselves. The Nassers shift the dynamics of the room brilliantly by playing the strengths of some actresses off the inexperience of others, for the cast features a mix of non-actors with seasoned pros like Abbas, as Eftikhar holds the loudest and strongest position, but inevitably falls to the power of the crowd. Amidst all the turmoil, too, is humour that comes through Safia, the drug addict, who pops pills and hallucinogenic lollies to make the most of the war. She rambles and envisions a Gaza in which she is President and all the other women hold cabinet posts. As she moves around the room, calling out the women for who they are, Dégardé humorously and succinctly exposes the weaknesses of each character while highlighting the strength the women find in a united front.

Abbas’s impressive performance anchors the dramatic weight of the film by making Eftikhar the most tyrannical and terrified soldier in the room—just look at how she shakes while she smokes or hides behind her flashy lipstick—while conveying that there’s no clear friend or foe amidst such violence. Abd Elhadi is also strong as Wedad, who perhaps makes the best fit for the viewer’s eyes in the situation as she looks at the violence both as a passive observer, powerless in the salon, and as an ally invested in the gunfire that hunts her beau like an animal. Awad, finally, is very funny as the truth-talking druggie.

Dégradé uses the singular space of the salon, however, to create a united performance through the collective strengths of the actresses. The use of the one setting creates an enclosure of tense, riveting drama, while handheld cinematography leaves the action edgy and breathless. By creating a uniquely female space, however, in which the women’s conversation on coifs, eyebrows, and boyfriends expands into a larger debate on their collective subjugation, Dégradé zooms in on one corner of the Gaza strip that doesn’t make the headlines, but is every bit as vital and fascinating.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Dégradé screens:
-September 14 at 7:45 PM at Scotiabank 11
-September 16 at 3:15 PM at AGO Jackman Hall

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