Egypt's cognitive dissonance: Feathers and El Gouna festival

Egyptian cinema's cognitive dissonance: Feathers and El Gouna Film Festival
4 min read
28 Oct, 2021
Omar El Zohairy's debut feature film 'Feathers' has been a resounding success, winning prizes at both the El Gouna Film Festival and at the world famous Cannes festival. However, not everyone has been happy for him.
Omar El Zohairy took the award for best Arab Narrative Film at the El Gouna Film Festival in October 2021 [Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images]

Egypt's artists have long complained about those they consider narrow-minded extremists seeking to impose strict controls over their freedom of expression through art.

Major production companies have even exploited this tired and often exaggerated issue producing commercial films that show the backwardness of these so-called "enemies of art, freedom, and creativity", and their ignorance of the meaning of art and its highest function - to express the reality of life in all its harshness and with all its difficulties, however shocking these may be.

Realism in Egypt's rich cinematic history 

Examples of films of this kind fill the archives of Egyptian cinema. These are serious films about the crushed and impoverished who live in the slums and the neglected countryside. Films which shine a light on the harshest details of lives led by many in Egypt, who are deprived of the most basic rights in terms of housing, health, education and work opportunities, and whose neighbourhoods become breeding grounds for poverty and crime, because of the hardship of life in them, the inescapable oppression and injustice.

"Films which shine a light on the harshest details of lives led by many in Egypt, who are deprived of the most basic rights in terms of housing, health, education and work opportunities"

Furthermore, these films have achieved widespread popularity, both in Egypt, and across the Arab world.

Therefore, it was a shock to see Egyptian actors stalk out in protest during the screening of the film 'Feathers' by young director Omar El Zohairy. Feathers was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival’s Critics' Week, after appearing at the El Gouna Film Festival.

An unconventional new talent

In both it gained the appreciation of many critics and audiences alike. Following its international success, interest in the film has only been heightened by the actions of those who withdrew in protest at the film's content and that it was shown at the festival.

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International film critics praised director El Zohairy for a serious submission crafted with a modern, surrealist aesthetic and in an unconventional way. The film follows the story of a poor family from Upper Egypt. In a surreal twist, a magician turns the head of the household into a chicken, causing the family's sufferings to multiply in the absence of their breadwinner.

El Zohairy is repeating the experience of the Jordanian film Theeb, which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film, in his use of little known actors who bring to life the environment they are immersed in. Most outstanding is Demiana Nassar, who brings creativity and skill to her role as the man-chicken's wife - a mother who will spare no effort when it comes to feeding her children.  

A bizarre reaction

Egyptian Culture Minister Ines Abdel Dayem paid homage to the director and the production team for their impressive accomplishment. However, actor Sharif Munir failed to see the merits of a serious and surprising film, instead slamming it for "tarnishing Egypt's reputation"! 

"The film follows the story of a poor family from Upper Egypt. In a surreal twist, a magician turns the head of the household into a chicken, causing the family's sufferings to multiply in the absence of their breadwinner"

This is the famous Egyptian actor who, in the film 'Hysteria', played a character who disguises himself as a male prostitute, wearing high heels, women's outfits and thick make-up, to lure customers to dark corners before stabbing them and stealing their money. The environment depicted by the film was a poor neighbourhood, one submerged in misery, poverty and humiliation.

Then there was his role in 'KitKat' alongside the late Mahmoud Abdel Aziz. Here, he played a destitute young man with a blind, alcoholic, hash-addicted and womanizing father. Again, the crammed and filthy neighbourhood is rife with suffering, injustice and simmering rage.

Munir's bizarre statements provoked a derisive response, revealing as they did a strange and somewhat schizophrenic attitude, as he attacked El Zohairy viciously, and belittled his accomplishment. He even dismissed the importance of the Cannes Film Festival – notwithstanding that the giants of the cinema world aspire to be granted one of its prizes.

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Other actors who were present joined Munir, some later backtracking from an unconvincing stance which more than anything else revealed mindsets shaped by jealousy, superficiality, naivety and a basic ignorance as to what the art of cinema is fundamentally all about.

Feathers is an astonishing, aesthetic venture, heralding the arrival of a skillful and promising new talent. The fact that prominent figures from the world of Egyptian cinema didn't spare a moment before launching this attack only exposes their jealous, small-mindedness and meanness of spirit. 

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here. 

Translated by Rose Chacko.

 

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