Life is tricky sometimes. We find ourselves in inexplicable situations, often not by our own doing. Both films that close my coverage of the Atlanta Film Festival feature characters impacted by circumstance, though to very different ends in the comedic Salma’s Home and the dark and violent Hands That Bind.
Salma’s Home is director Hanadi Elyan’s debut feature film, though you wouldn’t be able to tell by watching. Her film is a story of family, grief, and solidarity set in Jordan. Salma (Juliet Awad) runs a baking business and is close to her daughter Farah (Sameera Asir) whose visits become more and more frequent after Farah’s marriage is strained. When Salma’s ex-husband Bakri passes away, his new wife Lamia (Rania Kurdi) visits to collect what has been left to her in Bakri’s will. But Bakri hasn’t exactly gotten his will – or finances – together, and Lamia is left with only a portion of a house… that Salma lives in. He also neglected to file his divorce with Salma before marrying Lamia (minor detail). Forced to move in with Salma, Lamia is placed in an awkward predicament that she has to scheme and try to get herself out of.
Salma’s Home finds humor primarily through Lamia’s character. Possessing an Instagram account of more than ten thousand followers, Lamia posts on her story throughout the film. She laments Bakri’s passing while in the same sentence reassures her followers that she “won’t forget to post the latest fashion tips”. Ridiculing staged social media posts from influencers is almost its own genre of comedy, though Elyan finds a creative way to poke back at those who might find Lamia insufferable.
Topped off with a decades-long family secret uncovered, Salma’s Home is peak soap opera and women’s cinema all in one. Elyan does an admirable job of balancing the humor with the drama, and the result is a film that recalls Almodovar’s Volver and fellow Middle Eastern director Nadine Labaki’s Caramel.
Hands That Bind
Andy (Paul Sparks) is a hired hand who assists Mac Longridge (Nicholas Campbell) on his farm. Mac is aging, and Andy hopes to one day own the farm for himself. When Mac’s son Dirk (Landon Liboiron) returns to the farm, Andy’s plan is ruined. To make matters worse, Dirk is abrasive and unlikable. He is also aware that Andy wants Mac’s land, and won’t allow that.
While Andy grapples with what to do next, strange occurrences begin to happen. Cattle are found killed, seemingly by a surgeon. Eyes, skin, and udders have been removed without a trace of blood. The drought worsens and inexplicable lights appear in the sky. The air becomes toxic to Andy’s wife Susan (Susan Kent).
Shot in Alberta, few films are as beautiful and haunting as Hands That Bind. However, the film struggles in terms of its narrative. Andy and Dirk’s vehement dislike for each other can only carry the film so far, and their escalating violence out of spite predictably gets out of hand. As such, Hands That Bind is a little thin narratively and one can’t help but observe that the film gets lost in crafting its mise-en-scene with production design, sound, and imagery rivaling that in much greater films. Still, it’s possible that Hands That Bind might dwell on its audience after seeing and prompt a rewatch. But for me, I’m not sure.