The Guildhall had three barely-publicised showings of the Egyptian film Souad (2021), so I went across to have a look. It proved to be a very engaging and worthwhile feature, by the courageous female director Ayten Amin, who came to prominence with Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad and the Politician (2011), a documentary made in the aftermath of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak.

Souad (Bassant Ahmed) is a young woman in the Nile Delta town of Zagazig. When we first see her, she is on a bus, gazing at her phone and telling an old woman beside her all about her fiancé, Ahmed, a soldier, their plans to wed and her own life as a medical student. Unfortunately, this is all wishful thinking. Ahmed exists, but everything else is a fantasy. Souad’s passionate, reckless and secret involvement with him – she pretends to be a devout daughter and observant Muslim in every other aspect of her life – leads to tragedy. Her much younger sister, Rabab (Basmala Elghaish), takes a hazardous journey to find Ahmed and confront him. But this proves a more complicated business than she, and we, assume it is going to be.

The film offers an extraordinarily intimate view of girls’ lives in modern Egypt, as they discover the uses and abuses of sexuality under the relentless pressure of Big Technology, a moral universe as intrusive and demanding as Islam and with none of the human compensations offered by faith, tradition and family. The acting and writing is subtle, thoughtful and involving. The young women are lively, independent, passionate and provocative. But their daring has consequences. We are shown how hard capitalist individualism – freedom, if you like – can be on the soul.

Road Movies, the independent company owned by the great German director Wim Wenders, is among the long list of organisations involved in getting this film to the screen, and the film has been shaped to the norms of festival-circuit indie cinema. The first 20 minutes or so, though brilliantly scripted and performed, is all shot on a single hand-held camera. I did wonder whether this was perhaps to permit deniability: the makers could claim this scandalous footage was made by a single rogue individual, rather than an international crew. More likely it was an aesthetic decision, a mimicking of unauthorised shooting. It’s quite uncomfortable.

After that, however, things settle down and the narrative takes over. It is a strong story and very involving. It confronts the Western viewer with the realities of what we have done and continue to do to other people’s societies in the name of progress, economic development and individual liberty: as much harm, you might think, as good. And there are repercussions, as we know.

Try and see this film. It does not seem to be available on any streaming services. You’ll have to petition The Guildhall or The Roses or, if you are a member, Cheltenham Film Society.

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