Last year may have seen some governments maintaining tight measures against the Covid-19 pandemic, but things were undoubtedly more relaxed here in Egypt. For the first few months there were limits on the number of people allowed in gathering spots including movie theatres, but as the vaccine was rolled out these measures were relaxed. Producers were encouraged by the box office picking up speed, with recent films like Al-Ens Wal Nems (Humans and the Mongoose) and Al-Aref (The Knower) grossing over LE50 million.
Directed by Sherif Arafa and starring Mohamed Heneidi, Menna Shalabi, Amr Abdel-Gelil and Bayoumi Fouad, Al-Ens Wal Nems is a fantastical comedy about a man who works at the horror ride of a funfair falling in love with the human daughter of a djinn family. A major figure in the new wave of comedy that started in the late 1990s, Heneidi used to make a film a year but this time he appears on the silver screen for the first time in four years.
Directed by Ahmed Alaa Al-Deeb and starring Ahmed Ezz, Ahmed Fahmi and Mahmoud Hemeida, Al-Aref is an action flick about computer programmer who collaborates with the secret service to capture a dangerous hacker. It mimics American thrillers with firearms, explosives and car chases.
But 2021 was even more fruitful for art house cinema. Omar Al-Zohairi’s Reesh (Feathers), for example, participated in almost 15 different film festivals all around the world and has received 12 prestigious awards to date, including the Critics’ Week Grand Prize and FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes, the Best Arab Film Award and Variety Awards at El Gouna Film Festival, the Best Film Award at Pingyao International Film Festival in Shanxi, China, the Special Jury Prize at Torino Film Festival in Turin, Italy, as well as four awards at the Carthage Film Festival: Best Actress (Demyana Nassar), Best Screenplay (Tahar Chriaa), the debut award and the Tanit d’Or for best film.
Feathers is a unique film unlike any other in Egyptian cinema. Al-Zohairi, who co-wrote the script with Ahmed Amer, sets his story at an unidentified place and time, though it is clearly a poor, rural-seeming area linked to a factory. Perhaps that is what the filmmaker was looking for, the intersection point of industry and poverty as a vision of dystopia with a touch of dark humour. The filmmaker exaggerates the ugliness and filth of the area where the protagonists live, showing how the smoke from the factory irrevocably dirties their living space.
The script depicts the ordinary life of a family consisting of a man who seems to be a factory worker and his wife, their two young children and newborn baby. The first few scenes show the patriarchal authority of the man, the family’s only breadwinner, who controls the money which he keeps locked up in a dirty metal tin, while his wife speaks little and never smiles. What little dialogue there is shows the man’s ridiculous comments on the milk and a small fountain he brought home on the occasion of his child’s birthday. The story takes off when, having locked that man in a wooden trunk during a birthday party, the magician appears accidentally to transform him into a chicken. The family then becomes destitute and is threatened with homelessness, and the wife has to work to fulfil the family’s basic needs even as she keeps trying to work out the mystery of her husband’s transformation. Mixing a visually rough picture with fantastical action and funny dialogue, Al-Zohairi creates a cinematic discourse on poverty wholly unlike the one traditionally practised in Egypt, which is firmly linked to realism.