Cannes first look: My Favourite Fabric unwraps women’s lives in the Arab Spring

This delicate Syrian drama revolves around a nuanced performance from Manal Issa as a young woman uneasy in her skin and yearning for a more satisfying life.

Rebecca Harrison

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My Favourite Fabric (Mon Tissu préféré, 2018)

A Syrian film set amid the chaos of the Arab Spring and increasingly militaristic state-sanctioned violence, Gaya Jiji’s My Favourite Fabric (Mon Tissu préféré) is a small, domestic drama about twentysomething Nahla (Manal Issa) and her attempt to find love. But while it concentrates on the lives of Nahla, her sisters and their enigmatic neighbour Madam Jiji, rather than the political activists and soldiers doing battle in the streets, it is nevertheless a war film.

This is a war of attrition: in a world of dead-end retail jobs, average men with boring lives (as Nahla pointedly tells one suitor) and limited opportunities for women, the characters take what resources they can from one another. Pretty sister Myriam (Mariah Tannoury) steals Nahla’s man. Madam Jiji sells the bodies of the girls in her brothel. Nahla freely gives away chocolates and a beloved pet tortoise belonging to her mother and younger sister. Everything is a potential commodity and a bargaining tool in the women’s attempts to survive.

Nahla at first appears to be a sullen, self-destructive woman whose teenage tendencies – slamming down the phone, being rude to her customers – position her on the brink of adulthood. She hunches her shoulders and lurks in doorways like a guest who knows she’s not wanted at the party.

However, thanks to Issa’s brilliant and nuanced performance it becomes clear that Nahla is not nihilistic so much as depressed. She is uncomfortable in her body, and even when playing out fantasy scenes dressed in silk lingerie (her favourite fabric) with an idealised man, she wants to be anywhere other than in her own skin. Like Madam Jiji’s secret two-way mirror for watching the girls have sex with clients, her eyes see out – but no one in Nahla’s life gets to see inside her, and she cannot even look at herself. The subtlety that Issa brings to the character is quite astonishing given her relative inexperience in front of the camera, and her performance will likely resonate with women who recognise that very precise invocation of self-loathing.

My Favourite Fabric (Mon Tissu préféré, 2018)

My Favourite Fabric (Mon Tissu préféré, 2018)

It is a testament to Jiji’s understated direction and confidence in her story that Issa has the freedom to make Nahla oddly unlikeable, which is a refreshing trait in a female protagonist. There are a couple of missed notes in the film, with a somewhat heavy-handed discussion about the uprising feeling forced, and a sex scene that undermines Nahla rather than freeing her (a result, perhaps, of western financial backers’ desire for Middle Eastern films to conform to Eurocentric notions of liberal politics).

Those moments aside, My Favourite Fabric is a finely tuned film that ultimately empowers Nahla in her quest for sexual satisfaction and intimacy. It is not a redemption story, though, and Nahla, like her country, remains uncertain of her place within complex layers of power and oppression. Throwing the cut-up strips of her lingerie to the wind, Nahla realises that her favourite fabric was only ever an illusion. She may have lost the war of attrition, but you suspect she may yet go on to conquer herself.

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