Mohammed Hammad’s low-key debut “Withered Green” doesn’t give anything away. Instead, it’s a film that carefully parcels out tiny bits of information when absolutely needed, yet that slow accretion, together with the non-professional lead’s quiet intensity, packs a major punch. Comparisons will be made with “Coming Forth by Day,” since both are low-budget, female-centric Egyptian films, and while there are parallels, “Withered Green” isn’t a derivative work but a fully-fledged, emotionally rich (and also brave) feature about a woman trying to negotiate patriarchal traditions in order to get her younger sister engaged. While very Egyptian, the film fits neatly into an indie cinema aesthetic, and deserves strong rotation on the festival circuit.
Two women living together without a male relative in the house, even if they’re siblings, is not a common situation among the tradition-bound classes of Egypt. That complicates things for Iman (Heba Ali), guardian and nursemaid to lazy sister Noha (Asmaa Fawzi), who’s about to be betrothed. The engagement can’t take place without a male family member attending when the husband-to-be comes over with his parents, but the two women aren’t close with their relatives. Still, there’s no choice, so Iman is forced to call on her uncles, two of whom make excuses for refusing the responsibility.
As if this isn’t stressful enough, Iman is waiting for test results to diagnose why her period has skipped two months. She doesn’t share her condition with her sister, or with anyone actually, as Iman seems to be without friends. It’s not that she’s unpleasant, and apparently she has a decent relationship with the owner of the sweets shop where she works, but Iman is an isolated figure, with the implication that she’s put her life on hold to look after Noha. Her sister’s engagement should free her to focus on her own existence, yet everything depends on the diagnosis.
Hammad fills out this basic story with telling non-verbal details that significantly develop character and environment while enhancing mood, starting from the first shot of Iman’s winter terrace, mostly planted with cacti. She has a pet tortoise, a solitary creature whose shell, like Iman’s environment, weighs heavily. The apartment, large but poorly constructed, is crumbling, the light bulbs are bare, and Hammad shoots the living quarters to emphasize empty spaces, with the sisters appearing as lone figures in a place lacking warmth.
A closeup of a sanitary napkin registers as particularly jarring, and indeed, the film refuses to tip-toe around the topic of menstruation; considering how often the subject is ridiculously treated as taboo in nearly all cultures, it’s a welcome surprise that an Egyptian film by a male director is willing to engage with a woman’s relationship to her body’s monthly cycle. Iman’s focus on getting an uncle to represent the family means audiences almost forget about her medical problem, but then the issue returns with significant force.
The director must have spent considerable time working with his non-professional actors, especially Ali, the film’s focus. She’s not a figure people can warm to (even less her sluggish sister), yet Hammad succeeds in making her a sympathetic character. Information is only obliquely delivered, so for example a slight tension between Iman and her cousin Ahmed (John Ikram Hanna) could possibly imply there were once strong feelings between the two, but nothing is ever said; Ali projects an unfulfilled life full of disappointment, which makes Iman the avatar of countless people one sees on the streets and in public transportation, their faces locked in an expression of tense despondency.
The only time Iman allows herself to imagine otherwise is when she tries on a pink dress — Hammad carefully reduces the color palette to grays, dingy blues, and browns, so the pink, while not loud, makes an impression, and Iman’s look in the mirror offers a glimpse into the might-have-beens, or fleeting maybe-one-days. Strong natural light gives a near-documentary illusion to the scenes, while Mohammed El Sharqawy’s observational camera largely maintains a coolly nonjudgmental stance, apart from two surprisingly bold angles in a toilet.