The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema] - SOUAD | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Cinema] - SOUAD

souad review
An Egyptian teenager leads a second life away from the conservative constraints of her family.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Ayten Amin

Starring: Bassant Ahmed, Basmala Elghaiesh, Hussein Ghanem

souad poster

Have you ever noticed how much time kids spend on their phones?! When you see them on the bus, they’re on their phones, when they’re being dragged around Asda by mum and dad they’re obsessively scrolling through their phones, and the other day, right, I saw two kids, must have been about 15, sitting next to each other in the park, but both of them were on their phones! Unbelievable! When I was their age, to fill the day we used to hit a can down the street with a stick and smash people’s windows at night and that was good enough for us. It’s almost as if kids today would rather interact with the universe at large via the miracle of mass media applications rather than, I dunno, look out of the window.

Ayten Amin (director, with script duties shared by Mahmoud Ezzat) has certainly picked up on this contemporary habit, and in Souad the filmmaker explores the complex relationship which the titular character (Bassant Ahmed), a late teen girl living in a Nile Delta city, has with social media, and the ensuing confliction of persona and person.

souad review

The Egyptian setting is central to Souad’s narrative. Grim and dusty, with its denizens precisely segregated according to gender, age, social status (let’s not mention sexuality), cinematographer Maged Nader’s camera captures the mugginess of this punishingly urban milieu with tight frames and restless pacing.

The social and familial expectations which are placed upon Souad, and her younger sister Rabab (Basmala Elghaiesh), are manifest, too, and just as stifling as her surroundings. Even before imaginative uses of online personas come into play, we see Souad on the bus, chatting to consecutive passengers who share her seat: how she presents herself radically differs in each encounter, with Souad playing up and exaggerating aspects of her life to suit each audience. It’s a cute scene, which outlines what teenagers do daily out of necessity (imagine having to be a different person for your family, for friends, for teachers) but also their own amusement (learning who they are through social role play).

souad review

Away from her parents and with her girlfriends, Souad is perhaps allowed to be more herself; affectionately mocking her religion and exploring her own burgeoning womanhood. And then, away from her pals, Souad again subtly reconfigures who she is for her online boyfriend, with messages that are less sexting than they are clumsily sensual and romantic (quixoting?).

For its first half, Souad ambles along presenting the layered existence of its central character’s life, posing us questions by implication. The phone is freedom, a mini oxygen tank from which Soaud takes vital gasps of air to help her navigate this unventilated urban jungle (an aside: as someone with quite a few young uns in the extended family, I have to say that I don’t see that kids are all that obsessed with their phones. And when they do use social media it's usually self-expressive; creating amateur aesthetics via Insta, indulging in the reckless creativity of TikTok. It’s reactionary adults who are negatively preoccupied by Facebook, balking in received terror at the world and obsessing over what other people are doing).

souad review

You do wonder, though, half an hour in of a 90 minute movie which featured at Cannes, if this is all Amin has to offer - hanging out with these two sisters in their happy-go-lucky but compromised lifestyles. If it was, that would be ok. These kids are immensely likeable, and the filmmaking immersive and affecting. However, if you are averse to *SPOILERS* then skip the rest of this paragraph and come back for the last one..... Don’t get too attached to the titular character though, as around halfway through she drops out of the movie. Literally, as she apparently ‘falls off a balcony whilst checking the curtains’ (a weird fate which the film plays as ominously ambiguous). The rest of the film is taken up by Rabab tracking down her sister’s so-so boyfriend, a ‘social influencer’ who seems far less invested in the relationship than poor old Souad was. The contrast between this bozo’s privilege and Soaud’s aspirational middle-class background, and the pressures put upon her gender, are manifest.

For a film which seems to be patently ‘about something’, however, Soaud doesn’t have a great deal to say; what it instead presents are nebulous, yet occasionally striking, ideas about the shifting sands of teenage identity. In one such moment, a bereaved father accesses his child’s phone, and plaintively zooms in on pics of her out shopping, messing about with friends (honestly, I was in bits - I could barely breathe and had to pause for 10 minutes). Who was this person, really? With her character obscured within differing social constraints, atomised across varying digital interactions. The father desperately scrutinises these constructed versions of a person who remains now, as then, ultimately unknowable.

Souad is in UK cinemas from August 27th.

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