Two Palestinian students are torn apart, Romeo and Juliet-style, in Susan Youssef’s accomplished but erratic debut feature, “Habibi.” The 2011 film, which played the Boston Palestine Film Festival in October, was shot in the occupied Palestinian territories and has a gritty, low-budget realism as it depicts day-to-day life under the threat of violence and age-old cultural and generational obstacles.
It opens with young lovers Layla (newcomer Maisa Abd Elhadi, who is terrific) and Qays (Kais Nashif of “Paradise Now”) reluctantly returning to Khan Younis after their West Bank student visas are revoked by Israeli authorities due to an upswing in violent clashes. The beautiful and outspoken Layla, forced to abandon her engineering studies, rebels against her well-meaning but conservative parents who want her to marry a wealthy but narrow-minded Hamas supporter and live in relative safety in Gaza City. The ante is upped when the good friend of Layla’s younger brother, Walid, is killed. Walid is (a bit too conveniently) recruited by militants at the local mosque and soon becomes another obstacle to Layla’s freedom.