Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 15th, 2021
Souad (Ayten Amin, 2021) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Egyptian college student Souad, when first we meet her, rides a city bus in in the city of Zagazig, cell phone in hand, chatting with an older woman about both her medical studies and fiancé serving in the army in Sinai. She paints a charming picture of a young woman in the prime of young adulthood, excited about the future. A quick cut, though, places Souad next to a new stranger, and this time she tells a different story, in which her fiancé is now a doctor. Wherein lies the truth, or is it in neither version? Another cut brings Souad, on foot, to a high school building, in front of which Rabab, her little sister, angrily stands, complaining that she is late to pick her up. This part, at least, is unavoidably real. What about the rest? It all becomes complicated and fascinating in Souad, from director Ayten Amin (Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician), a film that gently casts a sharp eye on the challenges faced by women in a strongly patriarchal society.
Indeed, tradition and modernity collide in uneasy ways here, Souad and her friends discuss boys, sex and more just like any other women their age, though they have to be more discreet lest their elders take punitive action. After the surprising death of a principle character, almost lost in the ensuing dialogue is the forensic report of her virginity, which guarantees that she will be a “bride in heaven.” A life may be lost, but at least the deceased was pure. As we follow the restricted dreams of Souad, Rabab and the rest, in contrast to them is the ease and freedom of men, among them Ahmed, Souad’s ostensible fiancé. Whatever the actual facts of their relationship, he does exist, up in Alexandria, along the coast, and he flirts with an impunity that is impossible for the women. Without ever feeling like a polemic, the movie reminds us of this disparity with almost every frame.
That is not to say that our female characters have no agency; they just need to be careful. Though social media has proven a poisoned digital pen for our 21st-century world, bringing as much chaos and dissension as connection, here it allows the women the same opportunities for self-expression as their counterparts in more socially liberal societies. Though Souad and Rabab’s conservative aunt and distant father would surely disapprove of what happens on Facebook, that hardly proves incentive enough to keep them from going there. Still, Souad is a little uncomfortable with her pal Wessam’s drinking, smoking and even more frank sexuality than hers; everyone has a different comfort level with breaking norms. It’s in the 16-year-old Rabab, however, and her thoughtful, sorrowful take on all of this, that a more substantive future may lie.
The actors here all deliver superlative work, with Bassant Ahmed (as Souad), Basmala Elghaiesh (as Rabab) and Hussein Ghanem (as Ahmed) leading the ensemble. Cinematographer Maged Nader emerges as an additional character, himself, so present is his handheld camera in its push and pull with the protagonists. As it turns out, he’s a little too active, a boom mic briefly entering the shot just before the 28-minute mark. It’s also a little distracting to move in and out of close-ups as much as he does. Still, when he holds steady, both the compositions and the performances make of Souad a moving testament to human compassion and resilience. Death may be a way out of chains for some, but for others, the path ahead holds at least a hint of promise.