Souad is a film about looking past the façade: of religion, of online escapism, of empty claims of sisterhood.
Set in Zagazig, a small city on the Nile Delta in Egypt, the story follows two sisters as they balance their traditional, conservative upbringing with their liberal online personae. First centred around Souad (Bassant Ahmed), the older of the two sisters and a serial Facebook philanderer, the narrative later shifts to the younger Rabab (Basmala El Ghaiesh), after Souad’s double life eventually catches up with her.
Indeed, Souad spins lies at a rate Frank Abagnale would find impressive. From the offset, the audience is immediately immersed in the deceit-filled world of this titular character, watching as she fibs about fiancés and misleads about being a medical student. Crucially, though, these untruths never come from a place of malice. Instead, they serve as an escape for Souad: both from Zagazig, but also her disappointing, confining conservative home life.
At times, then, Souad almost feels like Sarah Gavron’s 2019 hit Rocks: a beautiful mosaic of person and place, shining a light on a lesser-known existence. As in Rocks, director Ayten Amin eschews the theatricality of a self-aggrandising score or ostentatious cinematography, instead letting the characters exist alone on screen. It’s very slice-of-life, and it’s very convincing.
Soon, however, Souad’s façade fades away in a war of attrition: real-life difficulties like disappearing boyfriends and invasive family members corrode her online fantasies, leaving the character a desperate husk, moved to do the unthinkable. As a result, the narrative shifts to Rabab, illustrating how this 13-year-old grapples with her shocking newfound reality.
Structurally, the film recalls Trey Edward Shults’ 2019 indie darling Waves: first the trauma, and then the recovery. While Shults’ work found its contemporality in an abundance of Frank Ocean songs, Souad is timely in the way it explores the many competing aspects of growing up in an Arab country. The juxtaposition of tradition, ambition, femininity and community – not necessarily in opposition with each other, but interwoven so that the complexity of modern Egyptian life is fully realised.
Moreover, as much as it is insular and focused, the story also speaks to a wider theme: what happens when traditional beliefs and contemporary attitudes intersect? In this regard, Zagazig is more than just a small city; it’s a vestibule for the melting pot of anxieties of young Arabs everywhere. Souad, in its reflection of their struggle, is like the tale of an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force: Ayten Amin doesn’t know what the result will be, but it definitely wouldn’t be pretty.
Souad does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2021 coverage here.
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