Berlinale 2021 review: Souad (Ayten Amin)

When venturing into Souad, the second narrative feature film from Ayten Amin, we are not entirely sure what to expect, since it initially takes its time in establishing a precise thesis statement or a discernible direction from the outset. However the answers to our questions are not too elusive, since we encounter them relatively quickly after Amin lays the foundation for what is to become an extraordinary piece of socially-charged storytelling. The film takes aim at one of the most notable contemporary worldwide topics, the over-dependency on social media, particularly by the younger generation. By presenting the audience with a story that feels incredibly relevant in an era where access to the online world is easier than ever before, the director makes a profound statement on a subject that continues to weave its way through the discourse. The story of two sisters, bound by their shared experience as teenagers in modern, working-class Egypt, but hopelessly divided by their varying degrees of reliance on the freedom offered by the internet, results in a poignant, shattering portrayal of youth and inexperience in a cultural landscape that continues to lose young people to the broken promises of the online world and the real-life challenges that occur in its aftermath.

Souad is a film that offers us an intimate glimpse into modern Egypt from the perspective of the younger generation. Despite being very much aligned with a particular social and cultural milieu, particularly around the portrayal of the working-class community the two protagonists grow up in, the themes at the core are universally resonant. Amin takes aim at a very common problem in a manner to which we can all relate to some degree, since most viewers are likely to have had some experience in the digital sphere, particularly through the widespread use of social media. This film focuses precisely on the misuse of it and how it can eventually result in irresolvable challenges and even tragedy in some instances. Amin employs quite a radical structure for this film, constructing it as something of a reverse mystery insofar as we are presented with the solution towards the beginning, with the second act focused on unravelling the mystery of how these characters found themselves in this precarious situation. Through provoking some challenging questions and going in search of the meaning behind modern patterns of behaviour the director crafts something incredibly striking, but nonetheless worthwhile in the conversations it incites.

The conflict between modernity and tradition has been a regular theme across all forms of art. This film centres itself on this very discussion by provoking some deeply unsettling questions to which many of us often refuse to pay much attention, since social media is more commonly viewed as a positive force, albeit only when used correctly and in moderation. This film takes place in a version of the world where it is common for people to hide behind screens, taking full advantage of the anonymity afforded by the online world. The question the film asks is whether this is indicative of a form of deception or if it is protection used to guard us against reality and allow us to build a fantasy that is more akin to what we aspire to reach, based on an idealistic version of life. The titular character is living a double life – in person, she is a dedicated, religious young woman who is fiercely loyal to her family. But once she picks up her phone she can be anything she wants to be, pursuing a life that is not her own. We live in an era where the availability of social media allows us to be whoever we desire, and it is certainly not uncommon to find ordinary people creating ideal personalities, manufacturing ourselves into the image of perfection that we strive to achieve without realising how damaging this tends to be when taken too far.

The film does not necessarily blame social media for those who misuse it, but rather serves as a cautionary tale layered with a very human message. Souad functions as a genuinely moving elegy to a generation losing themselves to social media, but it is far from promoting a luddite view of the world, as it does not ever come across as inherently against social media as a whole. Instead it works as a character-driven drama about the pitfalls of modern life and our incessant pursuit of perfection, to the point where we construct entirely new identities to satisfy the impossibly high standards we have come to believe are normal and well within our reach. The film weaves a compelling narrative from these loose conceptual threads, and avoids becoming heavy-handed in its portrayal of some wildly intimidating issues or preaching to an audience that might not be responsive to seeing their own behaviour reflected on screen in some way. Instead it allows access to this quiet meditation on some important questions that are asked with a sincerity that we rarely find so organically in works that aim at carrying widespread modern resonance.

Beyond the social message that attempts to dissuade us from depending on social media for validation, Souad is a film about sisterhood, a theme that binds the film together. Forming this story as a social realist drama more than anything else, Amin gradually deviates from simply focusing on the pitfalls of technology, and instead looks in on the relationship between the two characters. The most significant impact comes in how we see glimpses of their relationship oscillating between playful and toxic, depending on the situation and the degree to which their online persona impinges on who they really are. Some of the film’s most touching moments come when we see the sisters interacting, such as in a sequence where they abandon their teenage angst and spend time forming shadow-puppets – and the use of a flashlight from a cellphone to illuminate these activities carries a very subtle message that once we turn the phone around, there is a possibility of seeing the world in a different way, as well as those who populate it. Built on the dual foundation of exploring the innocent naivete of the teenage years, contrasted with the duplicity of the online lives many construct for themselves, Souad gradually builds to a harrowing crescendo that causes the viewer to pause and reconsider the role technology plays in our lives. Mysterious, brooding, but brimming with a thought-provoking authenticity that is definitive of the present movement towards earnest tales of modern life, Souad shows Amin truly crafting something special, and perhaps even essential, in how it critiques a few pivotal issues that relate to us on a universal scale, and warns us against taking our obsession with an idealized life too far, since we might lose ourselves along the way.