There are two gods in “Souad,” Allah and smart phones, but in a battle between the two it’s clear who’ll be the winner. Ayten Amin’s bold second feature is brilliantly alive to the contradictions of teenage life in conservative Egypt, where the pressures of social media clash with traditional religious strictures, leading to schizophrenic lives of acute unease. The film is remarkable not just for its razor-sharp, nonjudgmental insight, which captures lives as well as environment with a cleareyed neorealist sensibility, but also for the nuanced performances making each character rounded yet ultimately unknowable. Backed by powerhouse regional and European co-producers, Cannes 2020 selection “Souad” can finally be seen following its Berlinale Panorama premiere.
Right from the start, Amin grabs our attention, signaling how she’ll be taking normal situations and giving them a twist. Souad (Bassant Ahmed) pleasantly chats with the conservatively dressed older fellow bus passenger beside her, conveying the image of a good god-fearing young woman excited about medical school and her fiancé. In the next shot and still in a hijab, she projects a very different personality as she chews gum and talks with a contemporary beside her in a far harsher manner and with a completely different story (it’s amazing how gum-chewing can completely alter a person’s aura). Back-to-back, the two bus scenes give us an unexpected, conflicting image of the protagonist, trying on different personalities to adapt herself to how she wants others to perceive her. Souad isn’t crazy — far from it — but she is uneasily trapped between conflicting modes of comportment, and the immediate world around her is very limiting.
Souad lives in Zagazig, a nondescript city north of Cairo full of unauthorized constructions which she sees from the balcony of her lower-middle-class family’s apartment. She’s in school yet her life is circumscribed by the expectations of her social class, which means she’s required to spend much of her time sharing household chores with her mother Nagwa (Mona Elnamoury). She and younger sister Rabab (Basmala Elghaiesh) have a strong yet typically volatile sibling bond, while their father Abdallah (Islam Shalaby) barely interacts with the family. Contact with boys is possible only through her cell phone, which is the most important item connected to her body, far more than her hijab. The phone is her confidante, window and mirror: She sees herself solely through her mobile device, to an even greater degree than her friends, the more provocative Wessam (Hager Mahmoud) and the tradition-oriented Amira (Sarah Shedid).
Souad wears a T-shirt with the slogan “Girls Do Not Dress for Boys,” but while she’d give lip service to that idea, the truth is she longs for the male gaze and yearns to dress in a way that attracts it. She sends streams of suggestive photos and messages to the guy she considers her boyfriend, Ahmed (Hussein Ghanem), a content creator for social media living in Alexandria who’s older and clearly far less invested in the relationship. Then 40 minutes into the film, an unforeseen event upends the storyline (and brilliantly alters traditional narrative expectations), taking Souad physically out of the picture and bringing Rabab to the fore, as she takes a day trip to Alexandria to meet Ahmed.
Amin captures the salient differences between Zagazig and cosmopolitan Alexandria, where the Mediterranean appears to grant a more relaxed atmosphere, yet the dictates of controlling conservatism are still present, making it impossible for Ahmed to find a sufficiently unobservable place to kiss his new girlfriend Yara (Carol Ackad) — a search which, of course, he videos for posting. One of the many strengths of “Souad” is the way it manages to subtly encapsulate each milieu, building a complex picture of Egypt today that’s both loving and critical (a classic example of the former is the playful banter between Nagwa and a woman vegetable seller, making a pleasurable game out of the transaction in one of many scenes that could easily have been lifted from real conversations).
The film slowly runs out of steam by the very end, but it continues to feel true and respectful to its characters. For Amin this marks a strikingly mature leap forward from her uneven debut “Villa 69,” both in sophistication, believability and cinematic prowess. Most of all, “Souad” offers insight into the impossible space so many young Egyptian women inhabit, where what’s forbidden by religion is so commonly available virtually, and the hypocrisy of it all creates an untenable tension that crushes the spirit.
Amin’s choice of intensely workshopping scenes with unknown actors pays off in spades, ensuring flowing dialogue that feels unscripted and true. Beyond words though, the actors convey knotty inner lives, caught by Maged Nader’s fluid roaming camera that makes the viewer very much a part of this world. Khaled Moeit’s editing is similarly sensitive to the film’s emotional flow.