by Kaleem Aftab
- CANNES 2021: Omar El Zohairy has won the Grand Prize for Best Film in the Critics’ Week for his absurdist comedy that turns a patriarchal father into a chicken
Omar El Zohairy's 2014 short The Aftermath of the Inauguration of the Public Toilet at Kilometer 375 was the first Egyptian film to compete in the Cannes Film Festival’s Cinéfondation. He's now back on the Croisette with his feature debut, Feathers [+see also:
film profile], which displayed its plumage in the Critics’ Week. It won the Nespresso Grand Prize for Best Film in the parallel section devoted to first- and second-time filmmakers (see the news).
Feathers is an absurdist, deadpan comedy. It starts off in the manner of a social-realist drama, the kind where the dusty, run-down place where the action takes place and the characters remain nameless in order to highlight the fact that this is a story that could happen anytime, anywhere and nowhere. Only the type of Arabic they speak suggests it's Egypt. The camera holds back, watching the comings and goings in a house where the patriarchal father wants praise for everything he does, and the housewife washes pots in a cramped room where there are streak marks on the tiles. The actors are non-professionals. The restrained camera work and the deadpan sensibility seem European, in the vein of Aki Kaurismäki. The music is Egypt's upbeat tones, serving to recall the work of Youssef Chahine's Cairo Station. The film is a melting pot of styles, which is fitting for a movie about transformations, as from this point on, it turns into a comedy. Following in the footsteps of Alaa Eddine Aljem's The Unknown Saint [+see also:
film profile] and the work of Elia Suleiman, it proves that Cannes sure does love Arab deadpan humour.
The monotony of life is broken when the parents throw a birthday party for their four-year-old child. There is dancing, and magicians are brought in as entertainers. Said magicians ask Mr Authoritarian to get into a big box, and by the power of magic, they turn him into a white chicken. The trouble is that they can't turn him back. There is a hint of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita in the mix of supernatural elements and dark comedy.
The wife faces the challenge of being the breadwinner for the first time in her life. As if that were not hard enough, she is under pressure to pay the rent, as her husband has got behind on the payments. But her biggest conundrum is how she should treat the chicken: surely not like the donkey in Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar! The wife is determined to care for her chicken husband, even feeding him grains in their marital bed. She starts to realise that the chicken may be more appreciative than her husband ever was.
As the film develops, it looks at a woman's place in work and society. A factory that had previously refused to allow women to work within it changes its policy. The wife starts off meek and barely speaking, and will need to transform. El Zohairy narrates all of this without compromising on the framing or the pacing. The rewards come from sight gags and through the serious manner in which the characters treat everything. While not everything clucks (sorry!), it's apparent that the director's vision is determinedly singular in this endearing and well-crafted debut from a new talent to watch – and now a Cannes prizewinner.
Feathers is a French-Egyptian-Dutch-Greek co-production staged by Still Moving, and co-produced by Film Clinic, Lagoonie Film Production, Kepler Film, Heretic and Verona Meier. Its international sales are handled by Heretic Outreach.
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