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► Souad is in UK cinemas from 27 August.
Movies about suicide too often make it seem as if their protagonists’ every action leads inevitably toward that end, as if they’re narrowly a product of their environment. Other films make the opposite mistake, surrendering to the characters’ opaqueness and to the stigma that surrounds mental illness, so that secrets and impulses are impossible to puzzle out. In Souad, however, the Egyptian director Ayten Amin steers clear of such pitfalls. She delicately balances her story, by immersing viewers in a young woman’s quirks and passions first, and only then slowly pulling back to reframe what has happened.
That young woman, Souad (Bassant Ahmed), is by most counts ordinary. She prepares for her school exams, while in her free time chatting with her girlfriends about her country’s moral strictures, but also about frilly lingerie and men. In its intense camaraderie, the scene in which Souad and girlfriends dance sexily strongly recalls Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014). Maged Nader’s intimate handheld camera is patient but never too clingy. Meanwhile, the long takes and rolling dialogue make the most of the young women’s rant-like chatter. Both aspects deepen the overall sense of comfort; for a long beat, it seems as if Souad’s family ties and friendships are robust enough to help her resist any psychological tear.
The first signs of trouble come in flashes, mostly around gender roles. Souad’s father is a brooding presence, bossing her around in a few curt exchanges as she helps with domestic chore. A scene in which Souad brags to a stranger on the bus that she might soon be getting married plays out against the background of her girlfriends receiving marriage proposals from well-off suitors.
But when Souad finally has her angry exchanges by phone and message with her alleged fiancé, it quickly becomes clear that her imminent marriage is a brittle fantasy, to the point that Souad soon demands that her absent long-distance beau delete all her pictures (though at least some of these demands seem like she might be bluffing, merely playing it tough).
Amin and her co-writer Mahmoud Ezzat pull off a great feat in fleshing out Souad’s behavior: she is spirited yet disquietingly short-tempered, strong-willed, but possibly too rancorous to let grievances go. Whatever the reasons might be, her finale is more than the sum of any preceding acts; a brutal, startling caesura, which the film leaves to feel ruthlessly abrupt.
Before then, Amin doesn’t dwell on Souad’s darkening mindset. Hers is not a classic romantic tale of a spurned lover wrapped in a spiralling revenge fantasy (think Goethe’s Werther and his endless imitators). Instead, the story is filtered through Souad’s life at home, increasingly through her younger sister, Rabab (Basmala Elghaiesh). It is Rabab, played by Elghaiesh with laconic poise, who will be the last to see her sister. It is she who will travel from their small town, Zagazig, to Alexandria to meet the feckless Ahmed (Hussein Ghanem), who might – or might not – be responsible for her sister’s death.
The ambivalence about where to assign guilt is the film’s theme and its narrative strength. When Rabab finally faces Ahmed, who turns out to have a steady girlfriend in Alexandria, she is not impressed. Ahmed is a social-media designer, and could have just as easily engineered the mystique of his romance with Souad as he designs campaigns for Instagram. But it’s too easy to lay the blame solely on him, and Amin wisely refuses to turn him into a villain. Instead, the 13-year-old Rabab (though she lies that she’s older) must experience her sister’s infatuation for herself.
During the long night that she spends in Ahmed’s company, in Alexandria, Rabab grows exponentially in will power and spirit. Far from being a timid, naive young girl, she smartly takes stock of Ahmed’s emotional and character failings, as well as his genuine empathy. And as much as it seems shocking, at first, that Amin has Rabab get so close to the one man she has every reason to hate or maybe fear, this storyline gamble pays off handsomely.
Ahmed can’t help Rabab mourn, but during their wandering, while listening to his stories, and, at one point, imitating her sister’s voice – revealing Souad’s humor but also her stark intransigence – Rabab emerges as a remarkable protagonist: someone whose insistence on mourning as an exploration, a prelude to her own womanhood rather than a closure, brings her closer to the one she’s lost.