The winner of both the FIPRESCI Prize and the Grand Prize of the Cannes Festival’s Critics’ Week, where it was the first Egyptian film to be featured, Feathers by Omar El Zohairy is rooted in cinematic and musical traditions he is proud of. His ambition is to make art that transcends time and place, but his originality is deeply Egyptian.
A graduate of the Higher Cinema Institute in Cairo, he assisted not only Yousri Nasrallah but also Sherif Arafa, Kamla Abu Zekri, and Sandra. He also worked extensively in advertising. “I was very lucky to have such intense work experience. For example, the first shoot I witnessed was a film by the legendary Youssef Chahine. I worked in both the independent and the commercial sectors. Professionally speaking I learned from the masters, but the experience also helped me to see exactly what kind of cinema I wanted to make.”
El Zohairy’s first short film, Breathe Out, premiered at the 8th Dubai International Film Festival and won the Muhr Special Jury Prize for Short Films. His second short film, The Aftermath of the Inauguration of the Public Toilet at Kilometre 375, was the first Egyptian film to be selected for the Cinéfondation competition at the 2014 Cannes Festival. It went on to win several awards around the world.
Feathers is about a passive mother who dedicates her life to her husband and children. Stuck in her repetitive, mundane chores, she has made herself incredibly scarce. When a magic trick goes wrong at her four-year-old son’s birthday party, an avalanche of coincidental absurdities befalls the family. The magician turns her husband, the authoritarian father, into a chicken; and the mother is forced to come to the fore and take care of the family while moving to bring her husband back. As she tries to survive, she goes through her own rough and absurd transformation.
According to El Zohairy, the film emerged from the simple premise of a man turning into a chicken, and what would become of that man’s family – and wife. On her journey to digest her new life without her husband, much can be revealed. El Zohairy may have his beliefs, but he is not interested in proselytising. “I make movies about people, about human beings, their feelings, their interactions with life and each other. That is what I show in my films. Of course the journey of these humans has something to do with their context, where and how they live. But the motivation is their stories, not a cause I want to impose on them or through them.”
Maybe that is why for his first feature El Zohairy decided on a cast exclusively of people who have never stood in front of a camera. “It took such a long time to find suitable people to play the roles, especially the main character. I didn’t depend on coaching or rehearsals either. I never had any two takes unless it was for technical reasons. What I wanted in this film is to show how the characters could act and react within a given context. Even when they glanced at the camera when they weren’t supposed to, it was satisfying to me and I kept it.”
Although it took years for the final treatment of the film to be ready, Feathers does not have a scripted dialogue “Each frame was precisely calculated,” he says, to create a cinéma verité look and a specific atmosphere, a process in which he borrowed from documentary techniques. “But the actors do not perform a script. They enter the frame with a general idea about the situation and they are asked to spontaneously react. Sometimes I would whisper general guidelines to them, but the rest was their own invention.”
Unlike cinéma verité, in fact, Feathers was shot entirely on pre-built sets. “I wanted to create a special world around the characters, a world that doesn’t belong in any one time or place. Each scene serves as a complete, unique still image with its own emotional and mental effect on the viewer. This is cinema what cinema is for me – to touch the deepest feelings and present not a speech but a coherent narration that reflects the inner life of the characters but allows you to enjoy each detail as a unique unit.”
Contrary to what might look very different from conventional Egyptian movie-making, this is in fact the result of loyalty to the local cinematic heritage. As influences he cites Oussama Fawz, Yousry Nasrallah, Mohamed Khan, Youssef Chahine, and Khairy Beshara. Fallen Angels’ Paradise (1999) by the late Osama Fawzy, and Crabs (1990) by Khairy Beshara were two of his main references in Feathers. “We have a cinema that is great in every sense, in both style and content, which did not get its dues in the world at large. We are not arbitrary love children, as it were, but the legitimate offspring of a great, original and influential tradition.”
The same goes for music, which is a major element in the 112-minute feature, the soundtrack of which features tunes from various eras and generations – the work of composers Baligh Hamdi, Hany Shenouda, Omar Khorshid, Mohamed Sultan and others – which El Zohairy describes as “my favourite playlist at all times” which he includes primarily for his own pleasure. He believes that pleasure will automatically come through to the viewer. This is an aspect of the power of love in which he believes as a strategy for reaching audiences. “I don’t think there should be such a thing as a film to satisfy every taste. Films should satisfy the taste of their makers which is shared by some viewers.”
He was lucky to have a generous, risk-taking production team, including Juliette Lepoutre and Pierre Menahem (for the French company Still Moving), as well as producers from Film Clinic (Egypt), Kepler Film (Netherlands) and Heretic (Greece), which he believes allowed him to realise his vision freely. As for the future, he says, “I will keep making movies the way I love to make them about the things that I love.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly