Ayten Amin discussed “Souad” in a recorded Q&A session for the festival. courtesy Ayten Amin

“Souad” provides intriguing, authentic stories

“Souad,” kick-off film of Arab Film Fest, follows two sisters navigating traditional Egyptian culture and social media.

Oct. 21 marked the start of Arab Film Fest Tulsa at Circle Cinema, beginning that Thursday and concluding on Sunday. Tulsa Artist Fellow Moheb Soliman and Mizna, an organization for Arab, Southwest Asian and North African art collaborated to curate this festival.

Thursday’s kick-off film was “Souad,” a 2021 feature directed by Ayten Amin. The film follows the lives of two young sisters in a small city of Egypt. Souad (Bassant Ahmed), the older sister, is engaged but has online relationships with various men. She presents a reserved and traditional air to the older people she interacts with, but is confident and risqué around her peers. When alone, Souad desperately seeks validation from social media.

As the film progresses, Souad is driven to misery by her constant mask-wearing. Behind her posturing lie feelings of social and romantic inadequacy that are only exacerbated by callous treatment from the man she attempts to woo online.

Halfway through the film, the perspective switches to Rabab’s (Basmala Elghaiesh), Souab’s 13-year-old sister. Like her older sister, Rabab seeks love and validation from others, particularly men. However, as director Ayten Amin points out in her Q&A, Rabab is the only character who does not hide who she is. Rabab lusts after the same man as Souad, but interacts with him in person instead of over social media.

The sisters’ struggles transpire amid a conservative Muslim culture that viewsmany of their actions as taboo. There is a tension between the young female characters’ genuine religious beliefs and their social desperation. Their shared romantic interest, Ahmed (Hussein Ghanem), comes from a more liberal city, giving him a carefree allure.

Following this film’s showing, Circle Cinema also displayed a recorded Q&A session with director Amin. Amin stressed the importance of choosing not to set the film in Cairo. The stories of people living outside of Egypt’s largest city must also be told in cinema, though far too often they are not.

Amin included Wim Wenders, a German director, as one of her main influences for “Souad.” She gave Mahmoud Ezzat, the film’s co-writer, Wenders’ film “Alice in the Cities” as a reference point for the journey of Rabab in the city of Alexandria. Wenders eventually became a co-producer of the film after it had been accepted by Cannes. Most of Amin’s other influences were Egyptian films, particularly neorealist directors like Mohamed Khan, who Amin worked with as an assistant.

The director also emphasized the role social media plays in the film and the themes she was trying to tell with it. The characters in “Souad” use social media to manufacture artificial lives and relationships. Souad uses her phone to live the life her traditional culture withholds from her. Ahmed, the man both sisters desire romantically, uses social media to publicly display his romantic ventures, a luxury the girls cannot afford. Ahmed’s parents are more permissive, and the sisters’ conservative parents prioritize their purity as women. Despite his vibrant social media presence, Ahmed is still clearly unfulfilled in life. Creating social media content is Ahmed’s job, so he feels compelled to share a romanticized life for his own sake.

When beginning work on this film, Ayten Amin’s casting process was quite extensive; hundreds of people auditioned and several were observed in their daily lives over many days so that Amin could have firsthand experience of young people in smaller cities. Amin says she was shocked to see the messages young girls received on social media. Yet, Amin recognizes the access it gives young people, particularly within Egypt. Even if their virtual lives are artificial, they can still create genuine human connection and experience. The smartphone is ultimately essential to depicting their lives; to show them without it would fundamentally be a lie.

The Arab Film Fest continued at Circle Cinema over the weekend, featuring films from Palestine, Jordan, Qatar and Syria.

Post Author: Justin Klopfer