The idea of being trapped somewhere waiting has never sat well with me. I don’t like the idea of being confined and limited in what I can do and where I can go. I’d like to think that it’s a universal trait as there are many around the world who are limited by their circumstances. Despite this they still learn how to make the best of their situations.
Dégradé, directed by Tarzan and Arab Nasser, is an examination of women in Gaza through the eyes of thirteen individuals trapped in a beauty salon. Through the salon owner, Christine (Victoria Balitska), and her romantically complicated assistant Wedad (Maisa Abd Elhadi), we are introduced to a whole host of characters. There is a devout woman in a full cover and hijab, the devout woman’s crazy friend, a pregnant woman and her sister, a bride to be, the bride’s future mother-in-law and sister-in-law who don’t care much for her, and an older woman we meet trying on lipstick. In most cities in the world this might not be out of the ordinary at all. However, this is set in Gaza – so there are also curtains over the windows, and unreliable power availability.
There’s a part of me that wants to say this film is a combination between Steel Magnolias and No Exit (Huis Clos) by Sartre, but that’s only creating the margins of the story the film is trying to tell. There are politically charged discussions about the leaders in Gaza, talk of crossing checkpoints, concern about the uncertainty of electricity, and the changing devotions of the people. There is also talk of hair, and plenty of gossip over what each woman deems to be culturally acceptable. While they might be talking about what’s appropriate for a Muslim woman in particular, these kinds of conversations are relatable as discourse about what a woman can and can’t do go on in hair and nail salons around the world.
The women’s conversations opened up two storylines that I found most interesting – though one was more effective than the other. The first one opens the film as an older woman is shown talking on her cell phone (a device used throughout the film to connect us to the outside) about her impending divorce and current lover. She’s dressed in a sheath dress with straps, and we see the other woman in the shop gossiping about her. Throughout the film she’s demanding – no one moves fast enough to help her, they judge her, etc – but we never really know enough about her to understand her attempted rebellion.
The second one involves the young woman there to get ready for her wedding. Her struggle to choose a style that conforms to appropriate modesty, but also makes her feel special and princess-like, is fascinating to watch. This inner turmoil is pushed even further when the power goes out and we see the make-up literally melt off her face. When her mother-in-law encourages her just to change into her dress at the salon, when they know they’ll be late, it’s heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once. I really liked the interplay between the women in these moments. There is no such thing as the perfect woman/Muslim/person in Dégradé, these are real characters whose flaws make them more relatable and engaging.
What the Nassers succeed in doing is providing a glimpse into what it’s like for women living in a place where most aspects – her hairstyle, her dress, and when all hell breaks loose outside, even her freedom to walk outside – are restricted on various levels. However, they do not let the limitations imposed on them stifle them. In fact they find a way to rise above, even if it is something as simple as doing normal activities like going to the salon. Despite the physical situation they find themselves in, I’m happy to say that these women cannot be confined.
Monday, September 14, 7:45 PM, Scotiabank Theatre
Wednesday, September 16, 3:15 PM, AGO Jackman Hall
Ticket information can be found at the TIFF website.