In Habibi, a modern retelling of an ancient Sufi parable, Layla (Maisa Abd Elhadi) and Qays (Kais Nashif) are college students in the West Bank who fall in love with poetry and with each other. Like the 13th-century Arabic poetry tradition they so passionately discuss, their love is interrupted due to the region’s political realities. They’re forced to put an end to their studies and go back home to Gaza, where Layla’s family prohibits their love affair. Unable to see her, Qays is left to cover the neighborhood walls with poetic graffiti that professes his love for her: “Layla slips from me like someone who holds water in his hand, the openings between his clutched fingers always betray him.”
Habibi goes in and out of a wearyingly traditional mode of narrative filmmaking (i.e. melodrama) and a much more interesting usage of long takes where the camera refuses to budge, as if accosting the lovers just as vigorously as the on- and off-screen men (guards and regular passersby alike) that do so more literally, and often. The lovers’ dreams of protecting poetry from the world and using it against the occupation are quickly annihilated by the constant surveillance coming from all directions: the home, the street, the beach, and inside their own heads. This is a paranoid love, and a queer one in several ways. Even the simple laying of one’s head on the other’s shoulder must be filtered by the fright of being caught in the act—and what the act may reveal about the lovers’ wish for mobility. Like the Hungary of Béla Tarr, the Ukraine of Ulrich Seidl, the Portugal of Pedro Costa, but also the America of Solondz and Haynes, no one is going anywhere. And if they do, they’re harassed, attacked, or forced to go back to where they came from in shame (normally all of the above).
It would be more suitable for “habibi,” that iconic and ubiquitous word meaning something like “beloved” or “sweetheart,” to serve as title for a film with more Elia Suleiman-like gravitas than this one actually has. But director Susan Youssef, who’s only in her mid 20s, shows some cinematic mastery when she stops worrying about the literality of the domestic drama, and pays attention to the less tangible drama inside her characters’ heads. This is a drama that she renders tangible in, for example, an earlier scene that’s precisely about an interruption, not a plot development. Qays is simply walking through the ruins of the occupied territory, reciting poetry in his head. He finally reaches a white, coarse wall, stopping and closing his eyes and pressing his left cheek against it, as one might on his lover’s breast, or stomach, and says, “I know a thousand faces and I know hers. But without a heart where can I escape?” It’s an intimate moment that echoes the violent melancholy in Julio Medem’s Lovers of the Artic Circle. But while Medem’s film remains inside the lovers’ heads from beginning to end, Youssef isn’t as consistent in her approach to the impossibility of love.