Notions of beauty have constantly changed through the ages, especially with the emergence of Marxism in 19th century Germany. Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism were all responses to the massive changes that shook the world, especially in the aftermath of World War I. But the anti-aesthetic movement initiated, among others, by Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists and perhaps The Potato Eaters, remains the most comprehensive revision of aesthetics in recent human history. This quickly influenced cinema as well, although in Egypt there was little change beyond the focus on the poor by the realism movement, often dating back to Kamal Selim’s Al-Azima (The Will) in 1939. This legacy made it very difficult for an Egyptian film to embrace the unrealistic without being criticized.
And that may be the case with Omar El Zohairy’s debut film Reesh (Feathers), which caused a hustle and bustle at the El Gouna Film Festival, where it premiered in the Middle East in part of the narrative feature film competition and won the El Gouna star for best Arab film. and Variety’s MENA Talent of the Year Award 2021. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2021, winning the Grand Prix de la Semaine de la Critique and the FIPRESCI Award. During its screening in Gouna, the film was publicly attacked, including by actor Sherif Mounir, who accused the filmmaker of defaming Egypt (whatever that means) by deliberately focusing on poverty and ignoring accomplishments. government in slum eradication.
Many filmmakers, actors and film critics have expressed their support for El Zohairy and the film against the campaign thus started, and an aggressive debate on social media about patriotism and free speech has started, with some calling for the government to end the festival. himself – before the Decent Living Initiative launched by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in 2019 announced his support for free speech, putting an end to sycophantic and hypocritical hate speech. But the fact remains that Plumes is a unique film unlike any other in Egyptian cinema. El Zohairy, the filmmaker who co-wrote the screenplay with Ahmed Amer, sets the story in an unidentified place or time, despite the setting being a poor, rural area tied to a factory. Perhaps this is what the filmmaker was looking for, a particular place where industry meets poverty directly to create a dystopian story that has a touch of dark humor. The filmmaker exaggerates the ugliness and filth of the neighborhood where the protagonists live, showing how the smoke from the factory irreparably stains their living space.
The script describes the details of the ordinary life of a poor family made up of a man who appears to be a factory worker and his wife, their two young children and a newborn baby. The first scenes show the patriarchal authority of the man, the sole breadwinner, who controls the money he keeps locked in a dirty metal box, while his wife speaks little and never smiles. The little dialogue only shows the man’s ridiculous comments about milk and a small fountain he brought home on his child’s birthday. The only social activity is when the family gets together and watches TV: cartoons or videos about rich people having fun. The story takes off when at a birthday party, a magician locks the father in a wooden trunk and accidentally turns him into a chicken. The family then becomes destitute and is threatened with homelessness.
The drama unfolds along two lines: the mother works as a maid in a wealthy villa, where she steals food and is kicked out before finding another job at a plumbing supply store; the attempt to employ the eldest son in place of his father at the factory, which requires proof of his disappearance, and so when the mother goes to the police to obtain such proof, she is told that a man of her husband’s description was found. The father then returns but he is a vegetable, zombie-like, who neither speaks nor behaves normally – the figure is then visually compared to a helpless chicken. In this and other ways – notably the dialogue, which is abrupt and unnecessary in giving the viewer information about the story – the filmmaker takes his work away from reality. The cast is made up of people who have never performed before, beyond some of them – for example Demyana Nassar, who plays the mother – who attend workshops in Upper Egypt. The soundtrack is a mix of Egyptian songs from the 70s and 80s beautifully fused with other elements. With the exception of Amr Diab’s song Habibi Wala Ala Baloh in 2001, these elements point to an era of aesthetic transformation in Egypt.
Audiences can see that the film’s intro scene before the credits roll is not directly related to the plot. It shows a man committing suicide by setting himself on fire in front of a factory at night. This powerful and disturbing image emphasizes the dystopian concept behind the idea of a dirty industrial community that consumes every individual, turning people if not into chickens and then into zombies. There may be an underlying anti-capitalist message, but El Zohairy’s success eschews both a political message and realistic cinema.
* A version of this article is published in the October 28, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly