Feathers Dharamshala International Film Festival
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Director: Omar El Zohairy
Writers: Ahmed Amer, Omar El Zohairy
Cast: Samy Bassouny, Mohamed Abd El Hady, Fady Mina Fawzy, Demyana Nassar, Abo Sefen Nabil Wesa
Cinematographer: Kamal Samy
Editor: Hisham Saqr

A magic trick at a child’s birthday party assumes the significance of an irreversible curse when it permanently transforms a man into a chicken. The premise of Egyptian feature Feathers is ripe for absurdist humour but director and co-writer Omar El Zohairy locates in it a deep sadness instead, downplaying its fable-like quality in favour of depicting the grim realities of generational poverty, the patriarchy and the sacrifices women make for their families.

You’d be forgiven for mistaking the unnamed wife in Feathers for the house help at first. She’s introduced through a montage of monotony, making beds, clearing plates, doing the laundry and chopping vegetables, wearing a nondescript white blouse that resembles a uniform and with eyes perpetually downcast. Her husband routinely gives her miserly sums for household expenses and brusquely barks out instructions for dinner. The production design of their squalid apartment, with its peeling plaster, dirt-streaked tiles and a threadbare sofa, effectively conveys the circumstances in which they live with their three young sons.

The sequence in which the man is turned into a chicken is masterfully staged, full of disquieting silences and increasing uneasiness. The aftermath is devastating. When the wife and her husband’s friend drive up to a local circus looking for the absconding magician later in the film, it should be comic. But the camera repeatedly cuts to the bleak, barren landscape and crumbling concrete buildings to reinforce the family’s crushing poverty and the wife’s plight – what is she to do now that the family’s primary breadwinner can no longer work? Not that her inscrutable face reveals any of her thoughts, instead bearing the stony impassiveness of someone who has long resigned themselves to their fate. This is a woman who has lost her voice and her fight. The first time she speaks out loud is nearly half an hour into the film, and only after her husband has been turned into a chicken.

Nearly two hours long, the film is deliberately paced, with Zohairy employing long, pointed silences and closeups on inanimate objects to elicit sympathy for the woman. In one scene, a faith healer advises her not to eat chicken or eggs for a few days so her husband can be cured, after which the film cuts to a closeup of eggs being smashed in her kitchen. Having established just how poor the family is, this wordless moment asks viewers to consider what such a sacrifice will cost them. In another scene, the camera lingers on a ward of cash her friend’s husband hands her. The implication is clear — this is a transaction and he’s expecting her to offer something in return.

The film depicts her finding her voice, and her joy, with the same understated tone. In one of its most moving scenes, she takes her children to a local pool, the first time we see her smile. It’s a nice callback to, and rebuttal of her husband’s boast of being able to own a villa with a pool someday, only to settle for buying a gaudy water fountain ornament for their apartment. Feathers never loses sight of the film it is. The mid-film twist, while unexpected, feels like the natural, realistic culmination of the groundwork that was thus far laid out so well. The ending sees the woman find her spine and cease to be a chicken. And all it took was her husband being turned into one.

The Dharamshala International Film Festival is on from November 4 to 14. You can watch the films being screened here.

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