Feathers: An absurdist tale difficult to decipher

5 min read
29 October, 2021

Omar El Zohairy’s Feathers is, for many different reasons, a film capable of arousing curiosity and splitting the audience. Winner of the Critics’ Week Grand Prize and the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes earlier in July, the feature also played at Busan and Pingyao and recently sparked controversy at the El Gouna Film Festival.

During the gala screening organised by the prestigious Egyptian gathering, a few filmmakers walked out of the theatre. Next, MP Ahmed Mehanna submitted a request to the Parliament to hold the producers accountable for portraying Egypt in a negative light. Despite all these turbulent vicissitudes, El Zohairy’s film won the prize for best Arab feature.

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But what’s this much-debated film about?

The story, penned by the director himself and Ahmed Amer (Dhafer L’Abidine’s Ghodwa, Yasser Howaidy’s Ghost in Transit), takes place in a surreal, poverty-stricken urban setting, somewhere in Egypt.

For the first 25 minutes, the action is shot in a tiny apartment that is literally falling apart, where a family of five lives. Our protags are an authoritative, annoying father who is heavily indebted (Samy Bassiouny), a mother who leads a life of chores, misery and resignation (Demyana Nassar), and the couple’s three children.

Two of them try to fight against the omnipresent boredom by watching cartoons and other programmes on a rusty colour television. Meanwhile, the outer world doesn’t seem any better, as the living room’s only window faces smoky chimneys and a dull grey sky.

"It’s a patriarchal, ruthless microcosm ruled by men who spend their days drinking, eating, escaping any kind of responsibility (even the smallest effort) and treating women as servants or commodities"

We find out that the rent is long overdue, and that the family risks losing their shack if they don’t settle their debts as soon as possible. Nevertheless, the breadwinner decides to throw a party to celebrate his four-year-old son’s birthday. A bizarre arrangement of Hot Butter’s immortal Popcorn, creepy Mickey Mouse masks, a depressing set of decorations and an embarrassing magic show are only some of the staging choices laying the foundations of what seems a purely absurdist tale. One of the magician’s clumsy tricks, however, goes awry, and the father is irreversibly turned into a chicken.

After her husband’s transformation, the mother takes centre stage

This is the bold, charming premise of Feathers. After her husband’s transformation, the mother takes centre stage. She is now urged to take care of her family and, possibly, find a solution to cancel the spell.

From now on, we will follow the woman going through a series of interminable misfortunes. She asks for help from doctors, vets and phoney magicians while trying to find some work to feed her three sons and her “feathered” husband. It soon becomes clear that none of the people who will offer her some kind of support are moved by genuine feelings of compassion.

It’s a patriarchal, ruthless microcosm ruled by men who spend their days drinking, eating, escaping any kind of responsibility (even the smallest effort) and treating women as servants or commodities.

"Feathers is a rather courageous – but imperfect – cinematic experiment helmed by a talented filmmaker"

The husband’s boss in particular embodies all of these negative qualities. The transformation of the head of the family allows the woman – and the spectators – to explore the outer world, made of rust, dirt, crumbling buildings, blood and hopelessness.

When she finally manages to be hired as a cleaner for some wealthy people – the only characters who are not depicted as living in misery during the whole film – she is naive enough to be caught by the family’s bull terrier stealing a meagre loot made of a few dices of fresh meat, a half-full jar of jam, a lollipop and some candies.

The puzzling atmospheres throughout are intriguing and loosely echo the work of magic realist cinema and that of many weirdness-obsessed helmers such as Roy Andersson, David Lynch, Adilkhan Yerzhanov and Aki Kaurismäki (El Zohairy candidly mentions the Finnish filmmaker as one of his sources of inspiration in his director’s statement).

The narrative, however, follows a bit too elliptic approach and some dots may be difficult to connect. This overly cryptic storytelling mode, in addition to some slowdowns along the way, limit this work’s great potential. Later, all of this wandering becomes ultimately unrewarding, as the ending lacks a strong coup de théâtre one would expect from this type of tale.

The most compelling features of this film are its engaging setup, its foolish characters and its high care of detail, which make it a piece still worth watching.

The film follows one mother and wife going through a series of interminable misfortunes

Aesthetically speaking, the claustrophobic shots and the static camera courtesy of Kamal Samy convey a distinct atmosphere, wherein the viewer may experience contrasting feelings such as disgust, bewilderment and, why not, amusement.

All in all, Feathers is a rather courageous – but imperfect – cinematic experiment helmed by a talented filmmaker. The absurdist dimension depicted by El Zohairy certainly deserves further exploration and scrutiny. Hopefully, his sophomore film will benefit from the same creative flair and less obscure storytelling.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Cork, Ireland. 

Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni