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Dégradé review - The Guardian (18/05/2015)

Dégradé is one of those movies that ends up being more important than good. Written and directed by twin brothers from the Gaza Strip, where there have been no functioning cinemas for nearly 30 years, this a film very much from that troubled part of the world, but behind the headlines. Shot concurrently with the 2014 war, Dégradé is set almost exclusively inside a hair salon. (A set was built in Jordan.) Twelve women chit-chat, bicker, and finally boil while a violent situation in the street keeps them pinned down. To the Nasser brothers' great credit, one-to-one parallels between the women and various political factions are beside the point. This is a story about individuals. And if there's a larger message to the film - whose title is a pun on the name of a haircut as well as a law of thermodynamics - it's that if Gaza has anything in surplus, it's frustration and targets of blame.

Hiam Abbas, recognisable from western films such as Munich and The Visitor, is our centre, inasmuch as she seems the most unflappable. Heard negotiating specifics of her divorce on her cellphone, she's quick to snap at the salon manager about the slow service. Her stylist (Maisa Abd Elhadi) is a young woman who often finds excuses to run upstairs and make calls to her boyfriend visible across the street, a local mafioso who struts around with a pet tiger he stole from a zoo. The zoo is, apparently, a Hamas project, and the tiger was smuggled in at great risk through tunnels to Egypt; they're going to want it back.

The salon is run by a Russian immigrant (Victoria Balitska) who once fell in love with an mostly unemployed taxi driver, and surprises the customers with descriptions of her homeland as "not much better". Among the waiting customers are pill-swallowing libertine (Manal Awad) and a religious woman in full hijab (Mirna Sakhla). Their Greek chorus observations make for some comic relief, but when the shots start firing right outside the door, their inner beliefs reveal to be not that different.

Political speeches are largely absent, though one can easily find metaphors. A young bride-to-be (Dina Shebar) is getting madeup, and the discussion about how she should do her hair gets strangely pointed and intense. Then there's a pregnant woman on the couch carrying Chekhov's fetus. There aren't any kind words said about Israel, but neither are there about Hamas, or Fatah, or the power company which can't seem to stick to a regular schedule for their blackouts. (I didn't keep a scorecard, but I think the Hamas-specific gripes outnumbered anything else - perhaps a brave decision by the film-makers.)

While the film does its best to keep the conversation energetic, there are the pitfalls of making what is, essentially, a filmed play. Snatches of cellphone calls aren't quite enough to get inside the heads of some of the characters. Sound design goes a long way, from the Israeli drones that bungle the TV reception, to the generator outside keeping the fan moving, to muezzin calls to the eventual room-shaking grenades and machine-gun fire. But before we can get to the "action" of the last third, there's a lot of just waiting around for something to happen. This may have been some sort of creative choice, to have waiting customers mumbling "hurry up" and "I'm bored" to the slowpoke stylists, but the effect is felt just as much in the audience.

Jordan Hoffman // The Guardian