Dégradé: Women in Gaza search for beauty between the bullets

Degrade: Women in Gaza search for beauty between the bullets
4 min read
15 December, 2023

If the open-air prison of Gaza wasn't a claustrophobic enough backdrop for Arab and Tarzan Nasser's 2015 feature debut, then the beauty salon thirteen ladies find themselves trapped in definitely is.

Theirs is a female-centred story, a truly cynical one, highlighting the tension, anxiety and feminine rage experienced by a cross-section of Palestinian women trapped both physically and mentally by the patriarchal forces of Israeli occupation.

The events are limited to not just one hot day but one location, the aforementioned salon run by Christine (Victoria Balitska) a Russian woman who married a Palestinian student she met at university.

She has lived in Gaza for 12 years with her now husband and daughter, who is desperate to leave the shop but is forbidden because of the lingering threat just outside the door. That this military-controlled city is a more attractive place to live than Christine's homeland tells you a little about the sort of struggles faced by those normal working people battling corrupt government oppression.

"The Nassers transform this typical haven for female solidarity and turn it into a danger zone with animosity threatening to bubble over into all-out warfare"

Christine employs Wedad (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a tearful, anxious young woman in a toxic relationship with local criminal Ahmed (Tarzan Nasser). He lurks outside the salon with a stolen lion that makes him and his gang a target for Hamas, who soon show up and trigger a new violent conflict to erupt.

Keeping the men mostly in the periphery adds to the confined atmosphere in this dilapidated salon with limited beauty resources. The visual irony of women wanting to do themselves up in a place so run down reinforces the film's title too.

The customers bide their time quietly (and not so quietly) judging one another in sometimes funny but mostly uncomfortable ways. If sharp looks and side-eyes could cut then there would be no one left standing in this salon.

From the loudly whispered criticism of divorcee Eftikhar (Hiam Abbass) to the snide remarks levelled at Salma (Dina Shuhaiber), a young bride-to-be, by Sameeha (Huda Al Imam) her mother-in-law, these interactions speak to a culture still defining women in terms of the Madonna-Whore complex and built on internalised sexism, misogyny and religious hegemony.

The Nassers transform this typical haven for female solidarity and turn it into a danger zone with animosity threatening to bubble over into all-out warfare. In the latter half of the film, it does. This sort of characterisation feeds into the more catty tropes around women which, I found at times hard to swallow.

Yet even at their most horrendously malicious moments of name-calling and literal hairpulling, the strong ensemble cast articulates these women's fears, motivations and hopes without veering into melodrama. Shots often capture more than one person in a frame, adding emotional texture to the cause and effect of various snipings or reactions to the outside world.

Despite Eftikhar's arrogant, uppity persona, Abbass uses subtlety to display the insecurity of being left for a younger woman in the way she observes Salma's bridal preparation.

Balitska maintains a patient air as her customers throw shots at her and the other women but the frustration in her eyes tells a different story.

Manal Awad provides much of the comic relief as Safia a drug taker with zero filter whose insertion into other people's dramas is a way to deflect from her own experience of domestic abuse.

Awad shines in a particularly potent scene. The salon goes quiet as Safia imagines a government run by women and she goes around the room giving out various job titles.

Live Story

Where Nadine Labaki's 2007 salon-set drama Caramel avoids directly mentioning the current events of its Beirut setting (it was shot just before the Israel-Lebanon war broke out in July 2006), Dégradé is explicit.

References to Israeli drones and checkpoints, the corruption of Hamas, Fatah and various political entities, inform the heavy bitterness festering in nearly every woman.

It's heavy-handed, for sure, and the climactic final act jarringly shifts from the female to a male perspective. short-changing our investment in the story. But maybe that's a more honest reflection of the poisonous power of patriarchy, especially with the continuing conflict in Gaza. Men are the driving force and women are taken for a ride.

Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic, writer and author of Strong Female Character with bylines at Empire, Time Out, Elle, Town & Country, the Guardian, BBC Culture and IGN

Follow her here: @HannaFlint