The Brink of Dreams: Redefining womanhood in Egypt's Barsha

4 min read
31 May, 2024

In Elizabethan England, women were not allowed on the theatre stage, as public exposure was seen as compromising their modesty.

Even today, in many parts of the world, theatre remains a murky business for females. Despite the ban being lifted, the reasons are not much different.

In the 21st century, in the streets of the Coptic village of Barsha in Middle Egypt, featured in The Brink of Dreams (2024), a group of young women perform street theatre to express their life views and challenge their assigned roles in society.

Inevitably, their activities are constantly questioned by those around them, as they deviate from what is considered a woman's duty: children, housekeeping, and obedience to the male will.

As the authors of the film note in their Director’s statement, the fascinating aspect is that these characters act with “unawareness and utter disregard of the familial, societal, religious, and economic restrictions, while the camera holds in the edges of its frame the fear and restrictions those girls refuse to acknowledge.”

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Since the world seems never to be truly ready to accept female liberation, because it is built according to a male logic that might not withstand the competition, the wise response of women is to stop arguing and simply do what they see fit.

This is precisely the position of Majda Masoud, Haidi Sameh, Monika Youssef, Marina Samir, Myriam Nassar, Lydia Haroun, and the founder of the Panorama El Barsha troupe, Youstina Samir.

It is also the stance of the directors of The Brink of Dreams, Nada Riyadh and Ayman El Amir, who spent so much time immersed in the realm of their characters that the local villagers started suggesting they buy a house in Barsha.

Scene from Brink of Dreams [Semaine Critique]

Their film premiered recently in the Semaine de la Critique section of the 77th Cannes Film Festival and just received the L'Œil d'or (the Golden Eye Award) for Best Documentary. This makes it the first Egyptian film ever to win this prize at the world’s most important film festival.

Filmed over six years and tracking the characters’ development in real-time, the work deserved the honour among 22 other documentaries nominated for the trophy in all the festival’s categories and programs, including films by established directors such as Oliver Stone, Ron Howard, and Claire Simon.

What might seem like just another story about a hopeless female struggle in an unshakably patriarchal world in the first 30 minutes develops into a more complex and nuanced narrative, becoming far more intriguing to follow.

This may be because we are invited to witness the protagonists' journey of self-discovery, revealing details about themselves, the enduring traditions shaping their charming yet stagnant village, and the world beyond its confines.

We are given an authentic and privileged insider's look. Between energetic rehearsals and passionate performances, the three girls predominantly in focus are also trying to set up their private lives: Majda struggles with the administration around enrolling in a theatre school in Cairo, Haidi is about to get married and later celebrates her wedding, while Monika finds herself in a situation where she must choose between her friends, affinities, and freedom, and her jealous boyfriend, who insists she cut social connections, stay at home, and make him the centre of her world.

Scene from Brink of Dreams [Semaine Critique]

Beyond their urge to act and maintain their girl gang, their striving for independence stands out, though not all of them follow it through to the end.

Surprisingly, fathers turn out to be more supportive and understanding than young husband candidates – a hint that today’s younger generation might be more radical than the previous one, perhaps due to the current tendency towards polarization in every aspect of life.

The most endearing feature of the film, and the heroines themselves, is their 'unconscious' feminism, which springs more from their innermost need for independence than from ready-made idealistic discourses automatically repeated in the West until they become meaningless.

“Living in that remote village, they aren’t exposed to feminist thought, but they fully understand the strength the group gives them,” said Nada Riyadh in an interview

It is the intuitive nature of the girls’ rebellion that makes us believe in them wholeheartedly and suffer a little when, in the end, only one of them continues to fight for their common dream, while the others remain absorbed in banal everyday life.

The subtle portrayal of each character's personal growth, without relying on slogans or referencing movements, is captivating and impactful. It proves once again that inner spiritual liberation can be more powerful than publicly authorized freedom.

Mariana Hristova is a freelance film critic, cultural journalist, and programmer. She contributes to national and international outlets and has curated programs for Filmoteca De Catalunya, Arxiu Xcèntric, goEast Wiesbaden, etc. Her professional interests include cinema from the European peripheries and archival and amateur films