Director – Ayten Amin – 2021 – Egypt, Tunisia, Germany – Cert. 12a – 96m
Home truths are revealed about a 19-year-old, social media-obsessed, Egyptian girl in this small independent film – out in cinemas on Friday, August 27th
Starting and ending with a (different) young woman riding a bus, this slice of life drama takes a look at the lives of teenage girls in Egypt. The older generation live according to traditional, Islamic values, including the subjugation of women to men, while their younger counterparts like many Generation Z-ers around the world have more contemporary Western concerns.
For Souad (Bassant Ahmed), 19, it’s all about fashion, boys and looking cool on and off social media. Riding on the bus, she regales fellow travellers with tales of her boyfriend whose identity changes as she talks to the next woman sitting next to her. She visits a clothes shop and successfully shoplifts an item of headgear.
Having established her as either a teller of tall tales or a pathological liar, we see her giving her younger sister Rabab (Basmala Elghaiesh), 16 going on 17, a pretty unreasonable grilling when the later complains, understandably, that Souad is late picking her up.
When Souad unexpectedly vanishes from the story, her shaken sister travels to Alexandria to meet and get to know better her sister’s former boyfriend Ahmed (Hussein Ghanem) in an attempt to find out more about sides of Souad’s life she didn’t really know.
Although there’s clearly an underlying script and a story, the piece feels quite heavily improvised, shot in a rough and ready style out on the streets and public transport and in simple home interiors that would make the manifesto writers of the French New Wave proud. If the form doesn’t feel particularly groundbreaking sixty years on, the content does.
Egypt has been seen a lot less widely in UK cinemas than the nearer, more familiar and more prolific France so the local colour of this slice of life piece is not only an asset in and of itself but also provides an all too rare glimpse of the world of teenage girls within that specific national culture. Working with limited resources, director Amin uses long, hand-held takes to coax convincing performances from his cast, exploring his characters as they go.
The eponymous Souad is a self-centred character so reliant upon and shaped by mobile phone technology and social media such as Facebook that she would have been unimaginable a decade and a half ago. She’s not especially likeable, so kudos to Ahmed for playing her that way. As plot development shifts the narrative to a second character, her sister Rabab elicits more of our sympathy. She too is reliant on a mobile phone but is not a social media addict.
The older Ahmed, it turns out, works as a social media content provider. In the film’s final third when Rabab meets up with him, after sitting in a cafe and much waking and talking, she panics that she’s lost her mobile and even suggests he’s taken it from her bag. Putting her in a taxi to the station, Ahmed reveals much about himself by retracing their steps, finding the mobile under a bench where she was sitting and getting it to her at the station.
While both Ahmad and Rabab feel much more grounded than Souad, both their stories here revolve around her, even in her absence. She is undeniably the protagonist of the piece even though she disappears part way through. Amin’s film is a small affair that doesn’t attempt to do too much, but achieves its modest ambitions in spades.
Souad is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, August 27th.