Aesthetics of filth: Omar El Zohairy’s debut film Feathers

Hani Mustafa , Tuesday 26 Oct 2021

Takings stock of El Gouna Film Festival’s biggest controversy this year: film Reesh (Feathers)

El Zohairy
El Zohairy

Notions of beauty have constantly changed through the ages, notably following the emergence of Marxism in 19th-century Germany.

Impressionism, expressionism, cubism and surrealism were all responses to massive changes overtaking the world, especially in the wake of World War I. But the Anti-Aesthetic movement initiated by, among others, Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists and possibly presaged by Vincent Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, remains the most comprehensive revision of aesthetics in recent human history.

This soon influenced cinema as well, even though in Egypt there were few changes beyond the focus on the poor by the Realism Movement, often dated back to Kamal Selim’s 1939 Al-Azima (The Will). This legacy has made it very difficult for an Egyptian film to embrace the unrealistic without being criticised.

And perhaps this is the case with Omar El Zohairy’s debut Reesh (Feathers), which caused a hubbub at El Gouna Film Festival, where it had its Middle East premiere as part of the Feature Narrative Competition and won El Gouna Star for best Arab Film Award and Variety’s MENA Talent of the Year Award 2021.

The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2021, winning the Critics’ Week Grand Prize and the FIPRESCI Prize. On its Gouna screening the film was publically attacked, notably by actor Sherif Mounir, who charged the filmmaker with defaming Egypt (whatever that means) by deliberately focusing on poverty and ignoring the government’s achievements in eradicating shanty towns.

Many of the filmmakers, actors and film critics expressed their support for El Zohairy and the film against the campaign thus started, and an aggressive social media debate about patriotism and freedom of speech took off, with some people calling on the government to end the festival itself – before the Decent Life Initiative launched by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in 2019 announced its support for freedom of speech, cutting short the sycophantic and hypocritical hate speech.

But the fact remains that Feathers is a unique film unlike any other in Egyptian cinema. El Zohairy, the filmmaker who cowrote the script with Ahmed Amer, sets the story in an unidentified place or time, though the setting is a poor, rural-like area linked to a factory. Perhaps that is what the filmmaker was looking for, a peculiar place where industry meets poverty directly to create a dystopian story that has a darkly humorous touch. The filmmaker exaggerates the ugliness and filth of the area where the protagonists live, showing how the smoke from the factory irrevocably dirties their living space.

The script depicts the ordinary life details of a poor family consisting of a man who seems to be a factory worker and his wife, their two young children and newborn baby. The first few scenes show the patriarchal authority of the man, the family’s only breadwinner, who controls the money which he keeps locked in a dirty metal tin, while his wife speaks little and never smiles.

The little dialogue only shows the man’s ridiculous comments on the milk and a small fountain that he brought home on the occasion of his child’s birthday. The only social activity is when the family gathers and watches TV: cartoons or videos about rich people having a good time. The story takes off when during a birthday party a magician locks the father in a wooden trunk and accidentally transforms him into a chicken. The family then becomes destitute and is threatened with homelessness.

The drama develops along two lines: the mother working as a maid at some rich people’s villa, where she steals food and is kicked out before she finds another job at a plumbing supplies shop; the attempt to employ the elder son in place of his father at the factory, which requires proof that he is missing, and so when the mother goes to the police to obtain such proof she is told that a man of her husband’s description has been found.

The father then returns but he is a vegetable, zombie-like, neither speaking nor behaving normally – the figure is later visually compared to a helpless chicken. In this and other ways – notably the dialogue, which is abrupt and unhelpful in giving the viewer information about the story – the filmmaker distances his work from reality. The cast is made up of people who never acted before, beyond some of them – for example Demyana Nassar, who plays the mother – attending workshops in Upper Egypt. The soundtrack is a melange of 70s and 80s Egyptian songs beautifully fused with other elements. With the exception of Amr Diab’s 2001 song Habibi Wala Ala Baloh, such elements refer back to a time of aesthetic transformation in Egypt.