Pingyao 2021 review: Feathers (Omar El Zohairy)

Feathers is puzzling without being wholly impenetrable, serving as a deep rumination on themes of identity and existential angst – all filtered through the lens of one individual’s journey from man to poultry.”

If you were to just glance at the premise of Feathers, the feature-length directorial debut of promising young director Omar El Zohairy, you might not believe such a story could legitimately exist. You’d immediately be surprised though, since this film is very real. It has the strangest but most profound worldview of any film from the past several months, which continues to prove that reality is often stranger than fiction. The story of an ordinary man in working-class Egypt who is accidentally turned into a chicken by a magician at a child’s birthday party is fertile ground for the kind of artistic absurdity that has steadily been growing in the more abstract corners of world cinema, and El Zohairy, realizing the freedom afforded to him, willingly ventures into the unknown in telling this story. Feathers is pure absurdism masquerading as a profound social drama – the bleak execution coupled with the deeply unsettling sense of humour that is almost too surreal to elicit any laughter other than of profound discomfort, leads to a true oddity of a film, one that will appeal mostly to those with a taste for the absurd and the good sense to be able to draw the boundary between reality and fiction. The story doesn’t always make much sense, and there is a seemingly never-ending stream of odd choices made throughout the film – yet Feathers is still a remarkable achievement, a deeply unsettling provocation of both form and content.

Feathers was made under the steadily growing new wave of North African and Middle Eastern films that move beyond social realism and venture into more abstract territory. From the first disquieting scene in this film, we are well aware of the fact that this is a profoundly off-kilter story that is going to take us on an unpredictable journey. Functioning as a darkly comical fable, the film uses the concept of allegory to tell a captivating story of a family adapting to a crisis – in this instance it’s something as bizarre as their patriarch somehow transforming into a chicken for no apparent reason and his family simply accepting this enormous change in their lives, since there’s certainly not a very clear resolution or moral to this story. Similar to Kafka (whose The Metamorphosis appears to be an influence), the director foregoes explaining the transformation and instead just allows it to exist on its own bizarre terms. Like the characters at the heart of the film, we simply accept this as reality and start to gravitate towards the other aspects of the story that slowly change as a result of this unexplained transformation. As any great postmodern thinker will boldly state, sometimes the truth doesn’t need to make sense – and no one seems more intent on proving this than El Zohairy, who takes this already strange story in a number of unexpected directions, provoking an equal number of questions and conversations, many of them occurring in tandem with one another.

Undeniably, Feathers is a very strange film with a deeply absurd premise – but it constantly avoids overt insanity (which would’ve been an easy choice, considering how unhinged the story is), adopting a more caustic approach to its humour and measuring the comedy in such a way that it is both disconcerting and deeply entertaining if we can move past the more bizarre aspects of the story. It’s a film built from an abundance of grotesque details that only become more puzzling as we venture forward through this bewildering version of the world established by the director. Yet there is always method to the madness – and the absurdity of the premise conceals a very deep and unsettling portrayal of working-class society in contemporary Egypt. Like many modern films that situate themselves in the region, there is a sobering sense of seriousness that co-exists alongside the surreal humour, which reveals fascinating insights into the daily lives of ordinary people, presenting us with a bleak image of their lives – the transformation occurs early on, and instead of gravitating the entire story around this one event, El Zohairy uses it as a catalyst for a series of other occurrences, some of them just as strange, others more realistic, both instances providing unfurnished access into the lives of ordinary folk.

Kudos must be given to everyone involved in the creation of this film – somehow, they all understood the extent to which it needed to find the balance between strange humour and harsh social critique, and each moment feels genuinely moving and insightful to the broader aims of the production. A stone-faced, cynical dark comedy that approaches its subject matter with the same minimalistic eccentricity that we’d find in the works of Roy Andersson and Yorgos Lanthimos (whose abnormal portrayals of the human condition seem to be an inspiration to this film), Feathers is a fascinating curio. There quite simply isn’t a discernible way to describe this film or its story, outside of just remarking on how it is fully committed to a truly demented, vaguely nonsensical depiction of reality. The nihilistic sense of humour unearths a darker, more uncanny side of reality, and the combination with a very striking story of the working class and their efforts to survive harsh conditions makes for an enthralling film that doesn’t quite fit into any known categorization. We are constantly invited to luxuriate in the film’s peculiar (and perhaps even terrifying) image of our world, which takes on an abundance of new meanings through this spirited artistic approach. Feathers is puzzling without being wholly impenetrable, serving as a deep rumination on themes of identity and existential angst – all filtered through the lens of one individual’s journey from man to poultry.