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- STUFF - 

Huda's Salon unfolds in Bethlehem, in the Palestinian West Bank, in some historical sweet-spot in which everybody owns a cellphone, but photography is still mostly analogue – which perhaps provides the only glimmer of hope in the hideous situation in which young mother Reem finds herself.

Reem has visited a hairdressing salon owned by Huda, a woman she thinks of as her friend. But Huda is an ally of the surrounding Israeli forces – and her trade is in blackmailing local women, by drugging them and then posing their unconscious bodies for photographs that would destroy their lives, if they became public in that unbendingly religious and patriarchal society.

If the photographs were stored digitally, Reem's situation would be hopeless. But as long as there is a way of retrieving the few prints that exist, then Reem has a chance to reclaim her life. But the next two days are going to be her personal nightmare.

Huda's Salon is a film from Academy Award nominated Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now). Abu-Assad works between the Middle-East and Europe, but he was born in Nazareth, the most Arabic city in Israel – and is clearly writing what he knows in Huda's Salon. Or at least, as much as any man ever could.

Huda's Salon pivots on the relationship between the two women. Although the men they live with and work for may have enormous influence and power, Huda and Reem, who are separated early in the film and never meet again, are the engines of the narrative.

A handful of agents from both sides of the conflict hold the guns – and the Polaroids that could destroy Reem's life. But it is the women who will decide each other's fate.

Huda's Salon is set within an undeclared civil war, with that war playing out in microcosm in the women's homes and workplaces. But it is also a portrait of a marriage between a strong, bruised woman and an ineffectual, hypocritical man – set against the backdrop of a besieged and subjugated city.

Abu-Nassad lets the film unfold mostly in long, uninterrupted takes. Although there are elements of a thriller here, the real story is in the internalised struggles of Huda and Reem – and that is where Abu-Nassad lets his camera spend its time. As we learn something of why Huda has become a collaborator, we also watch as Reem edges closer to taking the same path, knowing that her own life might be ruined, but she can still save her infant daughter.

When an occasional flash of gunfire or peppering of violence does enter the film, it is almost an intrusion on the far more troubling and engrossing conflict that is playing out behind the women's eyes.

In a brisk and efficient – even slightly rushed – 91 minutes, Huda's Salon lays out a story of women at war that will stay with you. Very recommended.

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF

Huda's Salon is now playing in select theatres across New Zealand!