After her debut feature Villa 69 (2013), filmmaker Ayten Amin has come back with Souad – scheduled for 2020 but not released until now due to legal issues that have so far prevented a theatrical release – an entirely different genre of film.
Set in the Nile Delta city of Zagazig, the 96-minute feature written by Mahmoud Ezzat with Amer stars Bassant Ahmed as Souad, a 19-year-old girl in hijab who uses social media to present herself as a different character every time. In the opening sequence, Souad is on a microbus telling one fellow passenger about her fiancé, bringing out pictures of him and providing very detailed information. Speaking to a different passenger, however, she has become an entirely different person with an equally convincing story.
She has a complete relationship with a man called Ahmed, whom she has never met. She takes off her hijab in the pictures she sends him and they engage in virtual sex, but she is also upset when he disappears and they make up like a real couple. But the image Souad presents to Ahmed is fake. The film discusses the secret lives of teenage girls on social media, the way technology allows so many of them to take on a fake identity, improving their social class and economic conditions but also broadening the space in which they can enjoy personal freedoms.
Though it is about social media, the film stays with the real Souad, presenting her side of the story, her relationship with her mother and sister, her friends who are obsessed with marriage and matrimonial rituals – one of them is very proud of the kitchen machine she bought for her household – and the mundane daily routines she undertakes like a robot, as well as her attachment to Ahmed.
Except for Souad’s shocking capacity for deluding herself and others, the film isn’t as engaging as it might be until the twist takes place. Suddenly, without any explicit indication that this is going to happen, Souad’s younger sister Rabab (Basmala Al-Ghayesh) steps inside to drink some water while they are on the balcony and comes back to find Souad has jumped to her death. A beautifully written scene, it is so subtle the viewer hardly notices what has happened at first.
In the next sequence, the family is mourning: mother, father and Rabab, who is seen asking her aunt whether Souad can go to heaven even though she killed herself. Basmala Al-Ghayesh gives a brilliant performance, paving the way to the third act of the drama when, a while later, Rabab decides to travel to Alexandria to meet Ahmed.
An online video content creator, he is not only much older than Souad but also has a much more sophisticated and better off life, with a circle of friends including an official girlfriend. This is the warmest, most engaging part of the film as Rabab questions Ahmed about his relationship with her sister: how he can have another girlfriend, why he never met Souad. She captures the viewer with her telling silences and simple questions.
The film was CineGouna Springboard winner at the El Gouna Film Festival in 2018. It was also in the Official Selection of the 2020 Cannes Film Festival 2020, which was held virtually due to Covid, and screened in the the 2021 Berlin Film Festival Panorama as well, having premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, where it received the Best Actress Award which it also received at Mostra de València-Cinema del Mediterrani. In the same year it also won the Best Editing Award at Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO).
Souad was to be Egypt’s Oscar submission in 2021 but the legal issue prevented that from happening. It was on the international film long list of the British Independent Film Awards.
Born in Alexandria in 1978, Amin studied film at the American University in Cairo, graduating with a film called Her Man (2006). She took part in Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician, a series of short films set during the 25 January Revolution that brought together directors like Tamer Ezzat and Amr Salama as well.
Amin’s debut Villa 69 (2013), co-written by Muhammad El-Hajj and Mahmoud Ezzat and starring Khaled Aboul-Naga, Arwa Gouda and Lebleba, premiered at the 2013 Abu Dhabi International Film Festival where it received a Special Jury Award. Before Souad, Amin participated in directing the controversial TV series Sabei Garr (The Seventh Neighbour) along with female directors Nadine Khan and Heba Youssry.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly