A mother struggles to raise her three children in a dystopian Egyptian industrial landscape after her husband is transformed into a chicken in Feathers, a breathtakingly sure-handed debut feature from director Omar El Zohairy that won the Critics’ Week Grand Prize at Cannes last month before screening at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
The setting is contemporary Egypt, but it wouldn’t feel out of place in Mad Max: Fury Road: Feathers takes place in and around a seemingly-abandoned industrial complex, where a put-upon mother attempts to take care of her three children along with a husband who seems to add little to the equation.
Played by Demyana Nassar in a remarkably controlled performance, we rarely see the mother’s face or even hear her utter a word as she moves between cooking and household chores, rushing to close the solitary window in the family’s brutalist apartment before clouds of smoke from the nearby factory billow into their home.
But Nassar’s mother is suddenly thrust into the spotlight when a magic show at a child’s birthday party goes horribly wrong: her husband enters a box and out emerges a chicken, and the trick can’t seem to be reversed. But before the family can raise much of a stink, the amateur magicians have fled and left them with poultry instead of a breadwinner.
Worse, mom now has another mouth to feed and care for. The local circus can’t locate the magicians, a shaman’s ritual efforts won’t turn the chicken back into her husband, and now he’s sick: a veterinarian sells her pills and tells her to put him in an incubator machine for ten hours per day.
After repo men start removing the family’s few possessions, mom puts her eldest son (who looks about eight years old) to work in the local factory in place of her husband, and finds her own employment at a location that will hire women. The family begins to earn money to pay off their debt and reclaim their possessions, but in El Zohairy’s bleak worldview, no step can be taken forward without taking two steps back.
In its pitch-black satire of the working class in an industrial Egyptian nightmare, Feathers cannily blends elements of Franz Kafka: the central transformation of the father explicitly recalls Metamorphosis, while the endless bureaucracy faced by the mother in her efforts to make things right remind of one of Kafka’s favorite themes, featured in works such as The Trial and The Castle.
Bleak, almost post-apocalyptic cinematography by Kamal Samy is a perfect fit for the thematic material; the industrial wasteland that makes up most of the film’s visual palette is nicely contrasted with a few fleeting scenes at an affluent suburb. But the majority of Feathers is so grimy and dusty that you feel like you need a shower afterwards.
Deliberately paced but never slow, there are no wasted scenes in Feathers: every sequence carefully builds upon the pointed narrative, a rare accomplishment for a director making his feature debut. This is one of the real finds of 2021.
While some great films by acclaimed filmmakers also screened at this year’s film festival in Karlovy Vary, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria and Gaspar Noé’s Vortex, Feathers was a real highlight.