A Cannes Label film from Egypt makes its bow in Panorama, where it proves itself worth the wait
Dir: Ayten Amin. Egypt, Tunisia, Germany. 2020. 96 mins
Egypt is no country for vulnerable young women in Souad. Ayten Amin’s intensely involving, social realist drama immerses us in the lives of two teenage sisters as they navigate a society with high expectations and suffocating constraints. Chosen as part of the Cannes 2020 Official Selection and now screening in Berlin’s Panorama, it should travel extensively on the festival circuit, attracting the attention of streaming services and distributors along the way.
Souad feels like a window into a world we might never otherwise see
Souad is set in Zagazig, a small city on the Nile Delta. Souad (Bassant Ahmed) presents the world with multiple personalities. We first see her on public transport, confident and chatty with strangers as she spins romantic fantasies about her fiance Ahmed (Hussein Ghanem) and their bright future together. She claims he is an army officer in Sinai and that she is a medical student from a family of doctors. At home, she plays the dutiful daughter, wearing the veil, cleaning, cooking and meekly accepting a life of domestic drudgery as her father barks demands for tea and cookies. On social media and in the company of friends she is a much bolder individual. She constantly posts photos that would horrify her parents and is lax in her religious observance. “Do you want to pray with me Souad?,” ask one friend. “I’m on my period,” she cheekily replies by way of refusal.
Souad feels like a window into a world we might never otherwise see. It is a world where there is no room to breathe, no space to call your own. Maged Nader’s handheld camerawork and the extensive use of close-ups reinforces the feeling of scrutiny and confinement. We follow Souad around the cramped family home to the point of harrassment. There feels no place to turn, nowhere that isn’t observed. Even on a trip to the market, her mother clings to her arm and keeps her close. Only the seclusion of Souad’s bedroom, the rooftop balcony of her building and on social media channels are there spaces she can claim as her own.
Souad also captures the affectionate bond between Souad and her younger sister Rabab (Basmala Elghaiesh). There is fondness in their bickering and a shared mockery of an aunt who is outraged by any hint of colour in their wardrobes and only too ready to list all the things that are forbidden to them.
Souad unfolds in three segments named for Souad, Nabab and Ahmed. A tragic incident marks the midpoint of the story. A sense of cover-up and whitewash leads Nabab to find out more about her sister’s life and the nature of her relationship with Ahmed, a creator of content for social media rather than the brave soldier she had once claimed. Their meeting moves the film outdoors through a city clustered around skyscrapers to a beach area and a stroll along the shore as the tide gently flows around them.
In the end, Soaud potently conveys the dilemma of a younger generation trying to meet the expectations of their parents and society whilst pursuing secret lives of casual deception and little white lies. It is a story made all the more authentic and haunting by Ayten Amin’s documentary-like aesthetic and the completely captivating performances of her largely non-professional cast.
Production companies: Vivid Reels, No Images, Film-Clinic
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Producer: Sameh Awad
Screenplay: Mahmoud Ezzat, Ayten Amin
Editing: Khaled Moeit
Cinematography: Maged Nader
Prod des: Chahira Mouchire
Main cast: Bassant Ahmed, Basmala Elghaiesh, Hussein Ghanem