Life, love and death: The New Arab Meets Ayten Amin
Have you ever pretended to be happy on social media whilst in real life you were going through a hard time? Do you only share your moments of joy? Have you ever realised that your social media feed does not represent who you really are? Ayten Amin spent five years making a film that explores the deceptive discrepancy between online personae and the real-life characters behind them.
Focusing on the Egyptian Generation Z, in all of its complexity, Souad (2020) written by Mahmoud Ezzat and Ayten Amin, who is also the film’s director, is an invitation to observe the intricate lives of teenage girls in Egypt.
Souad (Bassant Ahmed) is a 19-year-old student laden by living a double life – she is torn between her real life as a veiled young woman living with her family and her virtual life which allows her to weave an alternative reality for herself.
The tragic suicide of Souad is the impetus of the narrative. The unexplainable, unfathomable tragedy persuades Souad’s sister Rabab (Basmala Elghaiesh) to go on a daring journey to Alexandria where she meets the man who broke her sister’s heart, an agony that might have been the reason behind her suicide.
"Souad is a powerful film about lives, real and virtual, and about people who are bound by tragedy. The film propels us to take a closer look at our own virtual lives"
In many ways, the film is a modern re-narration of the Egyptian film Duaa Al-Karwan [The Nightingale’s Prayer] (1959). A young girl’s death is unredressed and the girl’s sister goes on a brave journey seeking answers. The most important encounter in both films is between two strangers who have nothing in common, except their relationship with the deceased girl.
Souad was the first feature film by an Egyptian female director to make it to the Official Selection of the Festival de Cannes 2020. The film was also selected for the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival. Leading cast members Bassant Ahmed and Basmala Elghaiesh were jointly awarded Best Actress in the International Narrative Competition of the Tribeca Film Festival, New York City. Souad’s UK premiere was at the 2021 SAFAR Film Festival and was released in cinemas UK-wide on 27 August 2021 by the BFI as the highlight of their Arab film season at BFI Southbank.
Since the beginning of her career, the film’s director Ayten Amin has had remarkable success. Her first short film Her Man (2006), an adaptation of a short story by the prominent Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif, was screened at Clermont-Ferrand in France and several other festivals. Amin also co-directed Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician with Tamer Ezzat, Ahmad Abdalla, and Amr Salama which premiered at the Venice film festival. Amin’s debut feature film Villa 69 (2013) was screened at film festivals in Abu Dhabi, Malmö and Cannes.
Set between Zagazig, a small city on Egypt’s Nile Delta and Alexandria, Souad explores marginalised characters outside of central Cairo.
“I wanted to shoot the entire film outside of Cairo. I was wondering why we tend to always shoot in Cairo and make films about people from Cairo as if the other parts of the country do not exist. From day one, we decided that it would be a film about Egyptians who lived outside of Cairo,” Ayten Amin tells The New Arab.
When Amin was still a pupil, her classmate’s sister took her own life. They lived near the school; the entire school knew of the story of the girl who jumped off a balcony, yet they never discussed the issue with the girl’s sister. Although the story was very well known, there was a terrible silence enveloping it.
“I don’t know why I suddenly remembered this girl while shooting my first film. I kept on thinking about how the girl could have handled such a traumatic event without receiving enough support or talking about it with others. That’s how I got the spark of the idea behind Souad. I instantly thought of the younger sister, the one who survives, as the protagonist. Rabab is the one who goes through the transition of the hero’s journey,” Ayten recalls.
Ezzat and Amin’s script was inspired by conversations with Ezzat’s followers. Ezzat is a poet who has a strong platform on Twitter, many of his followers are girls from different cities outside of Cairo: “We talked to young girls for hours, and these long conversations about the girls’ daily lives became a source of inspiration for writing the script,” the director further explains.
Social media and new forms of abuse
Throughout the film, Souad’s mother is portrayed as an extremely protective parent. However, she is unaware of the emotional distress that her daughter is going through and which primarily comes from social media.
Souad’s daily life seems critically anaemic compared to her virtual life. Engaged in several virtual love affairs, Souad is particularly bewitched by Ahamad (Hussein Ghanem), a charming man from the glamorous city of Alexandria who is endowed with an overarching bonhomie as a social media influencer.
In a scene, Souad describes where Ahmad lives to her friend, with a smile, she enjoys telling her friend that her boyfriend lives in Alexandria, in El Ibrahimiyyah “a street that takes you straight to the sea”.
Shortly afterwards, the camera follows Souad’s route back to her place, a road full of rubbish and plastic bags; Souad and Ahmad come from different backgrounds and live very different lives.
Their real lives are as different as their virtual ones, Ahmad has a proper platform on social media while Souad’s account is personal, and they, therefore, have different reactions to their posts. When Ahmad disappears from Souad’s life, the young girl faces unsurmountable blues.
Ghosting, in its sense of abruptly ending a love relationship with someone by suddenly disappearing and ending all communication, has been a growing phenomenon with the rise of online dating. The devastating effects of ghosting are portrayed in Souad’s episodes of depression every time Ahmad disappears. In one of the scenes, Souad and Ahmad have phone sex and right after it Souad begs him: “Please don’t disappear again”.
Souad’s psychological distress leads her to send Ahmad her selfies while she is crying. While he film does not give a proper explanation of the reasons behind Souad’s death, it does expose the long-lasting psychological effects of tenuous online adventures.
The trauma of Souad’s suicide is carried by Rabab who has two wishes “I want her [Souad] to go to heaven; I don’t want to ever fall in love.”
Working with non-professional actors
Ayten’s intention of prioritising the marginalised spaces and characters goes in tandem with her selection of non-professional actors. Just like Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette [Bicycle Thieves] (1948), and Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (2018), a film with non-professional actors portray people who are “being” and not acting. The impact that these performances leave us with are different, it feels more like bearing witness to the events instead of watching performances which makes the catharsis ever more intense.
“I was so happy working with non-professionals, there was something very authentic about their performance," Ayten says. "I owe a lot of this film to them, working with them was by far more enjoyable than working with actors. I was looking for people who had something of the character, not people who acted the characters. A lot of the women in the funeral scene are actual residents of the building where we were shooting, we explained the context to them, and they happily participated.”
"The lack of funds in many Arab countries is only worsened by Western funding that very often tacitly forces filmmakers to tick specific boxes that would appeal to a Western audience’s expectations of an Arab film"
Funding arthouse films in the Arab world
Experimental cinema faces a lot of obstacles inside and outside of the Arab world. With large audiences interested in blockbusters and star-studded films, seeking financial support for arthouse films is very difficult.
The lack of funds in many Arab countries is only worsened by Western funding that very often tacitly forces filmmakers to tick specific boxes that would appeal to a Western audience’s expectations of an Arab film.
“We had a LOT of rejections, I have a pile of rejection emails, so we did not have any financial support for the film at the early stages of production," Ayten explains. "The lack of causality in the film was bewildering to many, some asked ‘isn’t Souad’s father sexually harassing her?’, for example. This is not what happens in real life, we don’t always know the reasons behind someone’s suicide.
"In the film, we’re in the shoes of Souad’s family as they try to understand what happens. I truly feel that there is no one reason behind suicide, and the reasons aren’t always that logical. The film intended to show it as it is. Institutions should deal with us and acknowledge us as artists who do films about people in their normal lives in whatever artistic way we choose. We should not be limited to making films with ‘hot topics’, funding should not be limited to hot topics. This is a crisis.”
Tunisian producer Dorra Bouchoucha was the first person to support the film after Amin and Ezzat had a writing workshop with her. Sameh Awad also funded the film’s production.
Souad is a powerful film about lives, real and virtual, and about people who are bound by tragedy. The film propels us to take a closer look at our own virtual lives.
Souad is out now in cinemas UK-wide
The Time is New: Selections from Contemporary Arab Cinema is at BFI Southbank and on BFI Player from 27 August-5 October. Tickets are on sale now at bfi.org.uk/whatson
Ouissal Harize is a UK based researcher, cultural essayist, and freelance journalist.
Follow her on Twitter: @OuissalHarize