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Since 2014, Egypt’s military and police leaders have been increasingly taking charge of all the state’s leading positions and civil society. Syndicates, media, press, and political parties are quasi-controlled by the state, leading to the closure of a free public sphere.
Despite having not seen the film, dozens of pro-state figures and media institutions have repeated the accusations, calling for the film to be banned and the film director to be “held accountable” because of using poverty as its storytelling device, which is not necessarily political, but touches on several societal diseases in contemporary Egypt.
Omar el-Zohairy’s film, which scooped up the Cannes International Film Festival Critics Week award, tells the story of a lumpenproletariat family in a dirty and dusty city that resembles an abandoned storehouse.
The family comprises a loud patriarchal working father, a defeated and quiet mother, and three children. The boastful father throws a birthday party and invites friends and family, but an entertainment magician reads the wrong spell and transforms him into a chicken.
Throughout the film, the wife finds herself in a pickle. She is left with three children, debt, rent, and a sick chicken – that is her husband. She begins to face harassment from supposed family friends who help her and her children, while also expecting her to be utterly grateful. She also faces mounting bureaucracy as she has to convince her husband’s employer that he is indeed sick, so she can get his pension. She also tries to go to a police station, but is immediately dismissed. She even goes to a shaman to reverse the spell of the birthday magician.
The visuals do not depict contemporary Egypt per se, but represent the deterioration in living conditions and moral and societal values. Eventually, the wife gets let down by most of her family members. She is too proud to ask for money. Throughout the film, she finds solidarity not from her family or even her husband’s family who only use her for his pleasure, but from some co-workers and neighbours.
Although Zohairy’s film does not seem to take place at a specific time, the wife’s struggle, as depicted by Damiana Nassar, sheds light on many of the misfortunes faced by women in a contemporary and patriarchal Egypt.
Being stuck between an abusive husband as well as sexual abuse and sexism, the main protagonist – the wife – gives a voice to many Egyptian women, even if she is offered very few lines in the dialogue. Thus, the film argues that husbands can be as incompetent as a chicken in many families, leaving women to fend for themselves in a harsh environment, where they have to survive amid a lack of social protection, pension, medical care, or laws to defy sexual abuse.
‘Dark and absurd’
Still, Zohairy’s comedy is dark and absurd. After the accident, the family blames the magician who asks them to give him some time to rectify the damage. The serious body language and the dialogue give a blend of dark comedy, served in limited frames.
Most of the scenes are filmed with steady cameras, forcing the characters to interact in a limited space, more like a staged candid camera TV show. However, the surreal storyline strengthens the drama side of the film. In this sense, the actors are not performers but ordinary people trained by the director to achieve the illusion of stubborn realism, which tampers the audiences’ anxiety.
One could say that there are three main characters in Feathers – the wife, the chicken, and the places she goes to. The latter is an essential element in the film’s plot. We learn the woman’s personality and her suffering is revealed through the places she goes to – the broken, filthy, primitive apartment; the crowded and unfriendly housing office where she pays the late debt; and the insect-infested cafe where she meets the sorcerer. Her whole neighbourhood is eroded by time and dampness.
These places create an abstract image covered in dust and thick smoke everywhere, even in the clinic she goes to and the veterinarian to whom she takes the chicken for treatment after it falls sick. The film begins and ends with this dystopian imagery that is close to a post-nuclear life, a sign that the characters may have escaped one challenge, but the place itself remains the cause of the misery.
Contesting the Egyptian state’s visuals on poverty
One could argue, boldly, that the poverty in Feathers is no more than an aesthetic factor, one of the main traps that the characters have to bypass in order to live. Leaking sewers, bumpy roads, and greasy walls all give Feathers dull and timid visuals. Images that are not found in state-sponsored propaganda videos or lavish TV series, where all characters live in gated communities.
One angry commentary on the film was that it distorted the reality in Egypt despite the government’s efforts to limit poverty. In 2021, there were 30.6 million people in poverty in Egypt, according to UN statistics, a figure that state officials often cite to justify cutting health and education budgets as well as food subsidies.
However, Zohairy’s version of poverty was too much for the Egyptian state, which has been working hard to whitewash its image since 2013 – by promoting tourism, the booming military and housing markets – using scripted and carefully created campaigns.
Feathers, in this case, defied, not intentionally, the visual image the state had for poverty in 2021. Hence, Zohairy suffered the consequences and accusations of receiving thousands of euros in exchange for ‘spreading a flawed image of the country abroad’. Indeed, the film’s commercial screening was postponed to 2022, after it was supposed to be released in Egyptian cinemas on 23 December.
Though Zohairy’s film passed with angry nationalist statements and threats, other films did not.
Tamer al-Said’s film, In The Last Days of the City (2017), was banned from being screened at the Cairo International Film Festival the same year. Several private screenings of the film were also stopped by the police. In addition, the Censorship Committee has yet to grant the film permission for commercial screenings. In The Last Days of the City is an ode to the old city of Cairo, according to the director, who spent more than eight years making the film to capture both his alienation and love for the city.
Freedom of speech?
The state’s agitation against Feathers is an example of how freedom of speech and creativity has deteriorated in Egypt. All creative processes and production must meet the state’s expectations. Thousands have been imprisoned on different charges ranging from spreading false news, illegally demonstrating, or criticising the regime in the press or social media.
In Egypt, most media outlets and TV and film production companies have been bought by companies belonging to the General Intelligence Services (GIS), the country’s secret services department. This situation limits and censors all content that does not meet the standards set by the government.
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