Fearless women

Soha Hesham , Friday 22 Jul 2022

Two Egyptian Netflix releases this Eid season mark a remarkable surge in feminist movie-making, writes Soha Hesham, but how well is the message being delivered?

Hammam Sokhn
Hammam Sokhn


Under a woman themed category named “Because she created”, Netflix has released two films during this Eid season: Hammam Sokhn (Trapped), directed by Manal Khaled; and Min Al-Qahira (From Cairo), directed by Hala Galal.

When Netflix announced the screening of Trapped, the English name rang a bell, since I had heard it during the CineGouna in 2017 at El Gouna Film Festival, when the crew screened one minute of the film for reviews. The film began as an idea in 2011 following the 25 January Revolution. Seven years later, when its very first scenes had been shot, it  stopped several times for lack of funding. In 2018, the crew launched a campaign through the Indiegogo platform which according to filmmaker Manal Khaled finally met its target.   

Trapped opens with a statement that the film is set in the early days of the 25 January Revolution, with real events that the director and screenwriter lived through during the event.

Co-written by Manal Khaled and journalist Rasha Azab, the 80-minute film follows the real stories of a number of women trapped in three different locations: a mobile phone shop, a building, and a public hammam. The revolution remains in the background with only its implications on these women and the sound the policemen and the sirens and the viewer might be aware of every now and again, including slogans like “Bread, freedom, social justice”.

The film opens in a small mobile phone shop where the owner (Osama Abul-Atta), seemingly alienated from what’s happening outside, is counting his money while watching television, enjoying the iconic scene of Hind Rostom in Bab Al-Hadid (Cairo Station). The shop seems near Tahrir Square as we hear the sound of police sirens mingled with footsteps and the pants of someone running who finds the mobile shop.

A woman finally steps inside the shop and asks to use to the landline, but she seems hesitant to leave again after using the phone once she has heard the sirens and police cars. We hear the man’s voice asking whether the woman is a Muslim or a Copt, just because she is not wearing hijab. She hears footsteps approaching the store, so she hides in the storage area at the back, where she ends up spending the night.

In the second story, the seemingly single mother (Neama Mohsen) of a young girl, Farah (Farah Maged) needs to go to work to obtain her monthly payment as she has no money left. Though she knows there are demonstrations on the street, she is therefore forced to leave Farah alone in the house, with plenty of instructions about staying away from the stove and never opening the door to anyone.

At the same time, a middle-aged woman (Mona Mokhtar) is being chased by the police. When she ends up hiding in the entrance of this residential building, the police lock her in. She knocks on apartment doors until Farah responds, and they start talking – Farah is confident enough to open the grille so they can see each other – and she asks Farah to use her landline to make sure her son is home, since she was separated from him by security officers.

Meanwhile at a hammam for women, a middle-aged woman in hijab (Caroline Khalil) and a young girl with short hair are locked in by order of the security forces, who control the hammam administrator Rabab (Ragwa El-Shaarawy). The screenplay reveals the transformation of people in times of danger and how they turn to each other and dismiss negative first impressions in favour of knowing the real person and experiencing mutual support.

The mobile phone shop owner changed his view of woman when she first entered his store after she spent the night there. As she was leaving in the morning he gave her back her mobile phone fully charged, no longer interested in her religion. In the second story, the girl locked inside her house – initially afraid of her visitor – eventually became a close ally.  An in the third and longest story, the two women trapped together in the hammam are extremely different from each other, there are contradictions between them, yet they manage to communicate and bond in their way.

Trapped is an honest film with real, simple stories becoming the principal element, as Khaled chose not to stress such elements as camera movement or editing. Her debut, it took ten years to see the light. Funding, Khaled said in a television interview, “was really hard, because sometimes, you’re obliged to change some details in the screenplay to get the fund, and that delicate moment of the revolution is really a sensitive topic right now.” It had its premiere online at the US South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival held between 16-20 March.

Hala Galal’s documentary Min Al-Qahira (From Cairo) wasn’t such a straightforward experience. The film revolves around two single women, Heba and Aya, and is narrated in Galal’s own voice. Heba is an emancipated artist, photojournalist and single mother. She meets Aya, a traditional young woman in hijab who lost her parents at a very young age. Yet both women suffer the same struggle in a patriarchal society.

A fearless woman if ever there was won, Galal has directed such films as Egyptian Women in Parliament, produced by the National Council for Women and produced numerous others. She is the founding director of SEMAT Production and Distribution supporting independent cinema. Her long documentary Women ChitChat won the Silver Prize at the Arab Rotterdam Film Festival.

In her one-hour documentary, Galal employs old songs and metropolitan references, with the radio intro, Min Al-Qahira, as an aural refrain. But her main topic is fear – specifically female fear – as the film opens with her driving while her voice enumerates all those things she fears: people, driving, heights, crowded places, etc. And yet, she concludes, fear doesn’t stop her from dealing with them all.

She addresses various feminist problems through her protagonists, but the discourse comes across as forced and divorced from many Egyptian women’s real-life experiences or way of processing difficulties. This is complicated by the fact that she makes herself part of the action in an unconvincing way, especially considering that her role is limited to that of a narrator.

The film does feature the story of how artist Heba Khalifa’s movement has been limited by her being a single mother, which led to a project in which she tapes herself and her daughter to a chair at home. Khalifa also shows a female mannequin riddled with pins, an image that went viral after the revolution.

Galal addresses hijab through her heroine Aya, who eventually stops wearing it, using it as a way into how fear of harassment and interference force women to watch what they wear on the street. This is perhaps the film’s most persuasive moment.

The film participated in the Horizons of Arab Cinema competition in the 43rd Cairo International Film Festival and won its Best Documentary Award. It also won the Jury Award at the 12th Malmo Arab Film Festival.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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