‘Souad’: Ayten Amin’s Provocative Portrait of Social Media Isolation Is Empathetic & Sometimes Underformed [Tribeca Review]

Social media as a way of hiding ourselves and assuming a new identity is an increasingly familiar cinematic concept, and in most genre films, that flexibility can introduce a kind of threat. In Gia Coppola’s recent “Mainstream,” Jan Komasa’s “The Hater,” and Leo Gabriadze’s “Unfriended,” Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram allow for a veiling of users’ true identities. Narratives in the social media subgenre often track the furthering of harmful intentions, from smear campaigns to hauntings to outright murder.

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Ayten Amin’s “Souad,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, is playing with the same social media-enabled concepts of obfuscation and performativeness. But “Souad” is more along the lines of “Eighth Grade” or “Ingrid Goes West,” crossed with “The Virgin Suicides”—films about a specific form of feminine fragility and the unique ways it is affected by the duplicity of social media. The film’s naturalistic performances, its script’s willingness to explore the lives of young Egyptian women and their priorities and desires, and its subtle contrast between rural and urban Egyptian locations and culture are all immersive qualities. But the underdevelopment of its central character makes for a disconnect between the first chapter of “Souad” and the shifts in perspective that come afterward. That narrative choice means “Souad” is more thorough in its reaction to its titular protagonist’s choices than in depicting the reasoning for those choices, and the result is an imbalance the film can’t shake.   

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“Souad” follows 19-year-old Souad (Bassant Ahmed), who lives with her family in the small Egyptian city Zagazig. Zagazig is dusty, industrialized, and overcrowded, with train tracks and bus lines crisscrossing through it. We meet Souad on the bus, her cellphone clutched in her hand, chatting with an older woman about her fiancée, Ahmed. He’s in the military, Souad says, and she worries about him all the time, but she gets along well with his sister and the rest of his family. She can’t wait to get married! But then, the woman sitting next to Souad changes—is she another bus? Or did that first woman leave, and did this second woman replace her? Regardless of the circumstances of this change, with this new audience, Souad’s story changes, too. Now her fiancée is a surgeon in Cairo, and she doesn’t get along with his sister, but Souad is very faithful and is praying for familial harmony. Which story is real, if either of them? How much about her life is Souad making up?

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The Souad, who lives at home with her demanding and judgmental parents and mischievous younger sister Rabab (Basmala Elghaiesh), is not at all the same person who rode that bus. That Souad was lively and chatty; this Souad is quiet and withdrawn. She stares at her phone almost exclusively: when her friends come over, like the flirtatious and audacious Wessam (Hager Mahmoud), or when she’s at the bazaar with her mother. She takes pictures for her Facebook account, and she watches videos created by aspiring influencer Ahmed (Hussein Ghanem). Is this the Ahmed Souad said was first a soldier and then a doctor?

Ahmed lives in the Ibrahimia neighborhood of the waterside Alexandria, nearly 300 miles away from landlocked Zagazig. Souad has never met him, but they’re sending each other messages and photos through various social media apps and even engaging in phone sex. If Souad’s religious parents were to learn about any of this, their reaction would be very dire indeed. But then, in a devastating reveal that is also the film’s strongest execution of scene blocking, a tragedy happens—one that Souad’s family accepts as “God’s will.” When Rabab inherits Souad’s cellphone, she learns more about what Souad was sharing about herself online and decides to find Ahmed and ask him about his relationship with her sister.

Those second and third chapters of the film focus on the themes Amin explores about conservative Egyptian society, entrenched misogyny, and narrow class mobility. Cinematographer Maged Nader pushes close on Rabab’s and Ahmed’s faces, the roaming camera adding a sense of intimacy and urgency. Also purposeful is the contrast between the tired-seeming Zagazig and the more sophisticated Alexandria, with its wide thoroughfares, access to the water, and myriad cafes; that dichotomy clarifies why Souad longed so much for this place. And in terms of narrative, Amin reminds us of the country’s traditionalist values and the pressures placed upon young women. The only information we learn about Souad after her death was that she was a virgin, information that reassures her parents. Souad’s chores fall to Rabab, and she finds herself treated as disposably by her family as Souad was. And when Rabab meets Ahmed, she finds him attempting to use the same charm upon her as he did upon her sister and not fully grasping however he might have hurt Souad. Ahmed was performing a version of himself online, too. Although “Souad” isn’t particularly unique in its imagining of his disparate identities, the film is intentional in suggesting that the allure provided by a screen transcends gender boundaries.

“People are jealous,” one of those women who sat next to Souad on the bus had warned her about social media, and variations of that competitiveness play out in the conversations Amin scripts between Souad and her friends. They insult each other on the darkness of their skin (a reminder of colorism all over the world) and swiftly accuse each other of lascivious behavior (often connected to whether their dress is modest enough), but also mock religious piety and tease each other about potential suitors. These young women already shift between various iterations of themselves when with friends or family, but why is this kind of malleability accepted, and Souad’s social media smokescreen isn’t? Did any of these young women really understand the depths of their friend’s unhappiness and helplessness? Amin refuses to overly explain her character’s inner life, instead focusing on the impact of her loss upon the people who knew her distinct faces. As a result, “Souad” is an inconsistent portrait, but the empathy and compassion it offers to young people swayed by a different world through a cellphone screen is uninterrupted. [B-]

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