Hany Abu-Assad Tackles Betrayal, Loyalty and Gender in Toronto-Bound Spy Thriller ‘Huda’s Salon’

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Hany Abu-Assad, the acclaimed Dutch-Palestinian director of Oscar-nominated “Paradise Now” and “Omar,” has broken new ground with “Huda’s Salon” which world premiered Sept. 9 at Toronto in the competitive Platform section.

The female-driven tense spy thriller is headlined by Maisa Abd Elhadi (“The Angel”) who stars as Reem, a young mother who falls into a trap during a visit at a hair salon run by Huda (Manal Awad, “Baghdad Central”), a seemingly friendly woman working for the Israeli secret service. While being blackmailed by the Israeli secret service, Reem has to cope with her controlling husband and a Palestinian resistance agent (Ali Suliman, “Paradise Now”) who suspect she is a traitor.

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“Huda’s Salon” marks the helmer’s follow up to Fox’s “The Mountains Between Us” with Kate Winslet and Idris Elba. Abu-Assad produced the film with his wife, Amira Diab, through their recently launched banner H&A Production, alongside Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy, who runs the Cairo Film Festival, and associate producer Daniel Ziskind at Film Clinic, as well as Philistine Films.

Memento Films International is handling international sales with Emilie Georges and Mathieu Delauney executive producing. IFC has U.S. rights.

Abu-Assad said the idea for “Huda’s Salon” came following a discussion with his wife “about real stories in Palestine.”

“I told her that I heard that story about a salon that was corrupting people to work for the Secret Service, and the next day, I came up with the whole story of these two women. My wife’s reaction was, ‘Well, it’s already written,’ and she was spot on,” says Abu-Assad.

The race-against-the-clock movie is built as a two-hander driven by two female protagonists, Reem and Huda, while the action is contained in a pair of locations over a short period of time.

Abu-Assad says instead of having flashbacks that slow down the suspense, he decided to have “Reem portray the present-day manifestation of Huda’s flashback; one character above the ground and the other is below, but both trapped.”

He shot the film in 17 days and said he shot each scene in one take “to give the audience the feeling that they are a part of the characters’ lives in their time and space,” as well as “play subjective and objective camera styles at the same time.”

“My previous movies were shot in 30 to 40 days with a bigger budget and crew but the limited resources on this film pushed us to be innovative,” says Abu-Assad.

While “Huda’s Salon” isn’t as politically charged as some of his previous films, Abu-Assad says the movie questions our “responsibility” and “awareness.” “We all know that politics sucks and occupation is bad. But what is our responsibility and can we spread awareness inside a society. I believe a girl like Reem could fall into that trap because part of our society isn’t protected,” says Abu-Assad.

The most political aspect of “Huda’s Salon” is the depiction of Reem’s oppressive marriage. To a larger extent, the film seems to tackle the place of women in the Palestinian society.

The director says he wanted to explore “gender inequality” in the film. “I’m almost like 59, and when I was 19, I started realizing the differences between women and men — women often say they want to be equal to men but I think it’s men who should aspire to be equal to women because they are so much braver and know better the value of life.”

Ultimately, “Huda’s Salon”‘s central theme is the connection between betray and loyalty. “I believe loyalty can’t exist without betrayal. Good has no meaning if there is no evil and people are not merely good or bad, they can change given the right circumstances,” Abu-Assad says.

Abd Elhadi, also known for Ariel Vromen’s Netflix show “The Angel” and Arab and Tarzan Nasser’s 2021 Palestinian Oscar entry “Gaza, mon amour,” delivers a fearless and emotional performance in the movie. She’s almost in every scene, many of which are close-ups.

“I needed an actress to be so brave, to be emotionally naked, not just physically naked and knew she was the only actress who could do that,” says Abu-Assad. The director pointed out stripping down for the film was “an act of bravery in itself.”

“In our society it’s very brave for an actor to dare to be naked. I think she’s the first Palestinian actress to have done it. She’s was also unbelievably brave in every possible way,” says the director.

Awad also plays a tricky part, weaving comedy and tragedy. “We don’t have stars in Palestine and she is one, she stars in a very popular TV series and she’s very funny, very alive; everybody loves her; I thought it would be an explosive combination to have this very funny character trapped in a Hitchcockian situation,” says the filmmaker, who said the inspiration for the film ranged from “Donny Brasco” to Jean-Pierre Melville’s “The Red Circle.”

Next up, Abu-Assad will be working on a string of international projects, including “Infidel,” TriStar Pictures’s adaptation of the popular comic book which was put aside during the pandemic. The director said the film is in advanced development. Abu-Assad is also working with his wife on “Kings’ Wives,” an ambitious series set in an imaginary Middle-Eastern kingdom, along with the French production banner Haut et Court TV (“The Returned,” “Possession”) and prominent Lebanese producer Georges Schoucair.

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