Qays (Kais Nashef) and Layla (Maisa Abd Elhadi) are university students who met and fell in love while studying in the West Bank. The two wish to marry, but unfortunately Layla’s family has already picked out a suitor for her, and Qays, as an artist and construction worker, is not solvent enough to strike a deal for her love. Defiant, Qays begins writing a love poem for Layla on the various walls of the Khan Yunis refugee camp, calling all the wrong attention to their doomed relationship, and eventually forcing a more dramatic move by the couple, if they truly wish to be together.
While there are other currents flowing under Habibi‘s story, it is primarily a simple love tragedy set within the context of the Gaza Strip; and what a context that is! It’s a world where everyone is a judgmental adult, throwing verses of the Qur’an at anyone that may be up to something that could be frowned upon. It is a state of almost constant oppression, from both outside forces and from within. Qays and Layla can’t so much as be in public together without great misfortune heading their way and, in this world, it’s not about rebelling simply against her family’s wishes; being together is rebelling against everything that surrounds them, and that kind of rebellion cannot and will not be tolerated.
If there’s hope to be found in Habibi, I did not see much of it. Once the conflicts set themselves up, and the characters were fleshed out a little better, it was obvious that it all was going to end badly. The type of fortitude needed to stand-up to these forces of oppression from all corners must but absolute, with no wavering. A single spot of weakness, no matter how small, will be too much. Tragedy ensues.
The filmmaking doesn’t call attention to itself, and the film has a very simple, fly-on-the-wall feel to it. This tone and style is done quite often nowadays, but not always done well, so credit goes to Habibi for looking good without being distracting or too stylistic. Instead we get to relax and watch a young couple stumble to their doom, which isn’t for everybody. It’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” proposition though: no one wants it to end tragically but, at the same time, had this been all roses and rainbows, folks would decry it for its lack of realism. You can’t win, so you either dig it or you don’t. I enjoyed it, but I sure didn’t feel good after it was over.