Feathers: an overbearing husband morphs into a chicken in this Kafkaesque exploration of Egypt’s power structures

Omar El Zohairy’s darkly funny and strikingly composed absurdist parable uses one man’s chicken transformation to tell a wider story of patriarchal oppression.

Feathers (2021)

“Something’s wrong. This is surreal.” There could hardly be a better way to describe the incident that sparks off Omar El Zohairy’s much-vaunted absurdist parable, Feathers – ostensibly about a man who turns into a chicken. Fantastical plot point aside, though, this festival darling is a cutting dark comedy, laden with striking imagery, which pits a downtrodden housewife against the Kafka-esque machinery of Egypt’s patriarchal power structures.

The housewife, never named, is played with steely reserve by Demyana Nassar. Married to an overbearing husband (Samy Bassiouny), she is forced to manage the household on a pittance; flimsy, filthy bank notes are counted into her hand before she’s ordered what to purchase and prepare for their dinner. Her husband dotes ever so slightly more on their three children. Still, his affection is broadly restricted to furnishing the children with fantasies of an opulent future, while he deploys gaudy trinkets to dress up their current impoverishment. For his eldest son’s birthday, as well as inviting around his own friends and business associates, he also hires a cut-price magician to perform some trifling illusions in their cramped apartment. The conjurer’s panic quickly alerts the crowd that something has gone wrong with a trick (in which a man inside a large wooden box is supposed to be transformed from human to poultry and back). 

The woman is left carrying a babe in arms, wrangling two other infant sons, and now caring for her chicken-husband and trying to feed the family. The events that follow would be farcical were the film not shot through with such a sense of grim reality. The woman tries to find work, but women cannot be employed at the factory that dominates what passes for the local economy. She sends her young son to work there, but his pay cannot be released to her unless her husband is officially declared missing, which is turning out to be hard to prove. All the while, a friend of her husband’s has been helping her, but his aid is faltering and laced with ulterior motives.

Feathers (2021)

The film takes place in a precisely defined version of Egypt with a deftly calibrated atmosphere. The setting is a dusty, desolate backwater town, where the land is hot and arid and the official spaces – the bosses’ office, the police station – are even more airless and squalid than the meagre domestic dwellings. The environment is almost unreal, enhancing the film’s fabular quality, but the inequity it symbolises is regrettably authentic. The screenplay, co-written by El Zohairy and Ahmed Amer, always seems to puncture a scene of despair with a preposterous detail and, equally, cuts through any moment that might become wholly funny with some forbidding allusion. In this hermetic scenario, life is difficult for most and the bureaucratic hoops are set at just the right height to stop the wrong people accidentally jumping through them. While Nassar’s character largely bears her trials with impassive stoicism – she only speaks a handful of lines, despite her primacy within the camera’s frame – the gruelling impact is never undermined.

El Zohairy and his director of photography Kamal Samy, both making their feature debuts, share an assured eye for strong composition. They are equally capable of employing it for comic absurdity or menacing drama, combining expansive long takes with fragmentary close-ups which imply rather than show. In one scene, the husband’s friend seems intent on recompense for his help and, after a scuffle through a car door, he is left lying in the dust while the woman flees. It takes place in a single protracted wide shot, an arthouse cinema staple, used here to emphasise the altercation’s tawdriness, but held just long enough to deploy an unexpected visual gag as the scene’s ludicrous punchline.

Several minutes later, there is another moment with the two in the same car. This time, the compositions are close-ups that emphasise the emotion and power dynamic through awkward angles and segmented body parts – from the man’s grinning, leering face to the woman’s hand, clamped to her side, strained and uncomfortable. The insinuations of the sequence are conveyed wordlessly but with incredible force, like much of the film. As the story progresses, the woman begins almost imperceptibly to change and when the quandary of her husband’s condition enigmatically reaches something approaching a resolution, the film finds a way to offer her a form of darkly delicious emancipation.

 ► Feathers is available to stream on BFI Player now.