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Souad (2021)
Courtesy BFI

In Souad, sexts and lies unravel the secret lives of Egypt’s teenage girls

Ayten Amin discusses her tender coming-of-age drama, which explores sisterhood, tragedy, and the conflicting dualities of reality and social media

In Ayten Amin’s razor sharp coming-of-age drama Souad, reality and fantasy appear distinctly defined. For the film’s eponymous 19-year-old protagonist (played by Bassant Ahmed), her reality is small: school, chores, and a conservative, working class lifestyle in the small Egyptian city of Zagazig. To her family, Souad is a hard-working student who wears a veil and is devoted to her religion. Away from the prying eyes of society, however, Souad revels in the digital daydream of her phone: unrestricted, spontaneous, grown up. Online, she’s a sexually explorative teenager navigating the trials and tribulations of girlhood – talking sex with her friends, posting risqué selfies, and agonising over a boy during heated late-night phone calls – though she remains torn between her religious identity and desire to indulge in her sexual awakening. 

These juxtapositions are central to Souad, which tenderly explores the hidden lives of Egypt’s teenage girls. It’s a topic that director Amin, who grew up in Alexandria, identifies with closely, and one she touched upon in her 2009 short film Rabei 89 (known in English as Spring 89), which followed two young girls as they made up stories about their imaginary romances. “I’m always pretending to be someone who can be accepted by society,” she tells Dazed over Zoom from her apartment in Cairo. “I know so much about trying to be the good girl. I did it with my family, work, and everyone so my life would be easier. I know the pressure very well, and I still suffer from it now.”

The film’s opening scene is the only moment that offers Souad respite from her dissonant dualities, as transient conversations enable her to bask in her fantasy world. “This is my financé, Ahmed,” she lies to a stranger on the bus, brandishing a photo on her phone. “I can barely talk to him. He’s an army officer in Sinai.” When someone else boards the bus, Ahmed is a surgeon in Cairo. In one story, Souad is close to his family; in another, she berates his demanding, fictional sister. “Sometimes I’m fine,” she garrulously concludes, “and sometimes I feel like dumping him.”

In real life, Ahmed (Hussein Ghanem) is a privileged social media influencer with whom Souad has a turbulent relationship, despite the two never having met. Fueled by long gaps in their communication – during which, we learn later, Ahmed is with his actual girlfriend – as well as guilt over sending sexts and photos of herself without her veil, Souad becomes increasingly tormented by their romance. As more relationships start to crumble, secrets become suffocating, and her real and digital lives come into conflict, a tragedy – inspired by Amin’s own experiences – strikes.

When the director was ten years old, one of her classmates’ sisters committed suicide. Although everyone in the neighbourhood knew what had happened, when they returned to school, nobody spoke to the sister about it. “We just acted as if nothing had happened,” she explains. “Then suddenly when I was shooting my first feature film, I remembered her vividly. I thought, ‘How did she cope when she was growing up when none of us talked about it?’”

This question established the structure of the film – itself split into two diverging worlds. Having followed Souad’s perspective for the first half, in the second we finally meet Ahmed, via Souad’s 13-year-old sister Rabab (portrayed by Basmala Elghaiesh). “I wanted to be in their shoes when this (tragedy) happened,” Amin explains. “I wanted to see how they would react to this. And I wanted to put the audience in their shoes, so they could see how things are from the other side.”

Through this method of storytelling, Amin encourages us to abandon our previous judgments of Ahmed – based on his social media presence and tempestuous digital interactions with Souad – and to see him in a more nuanced, complex light. Something that can only be done away from the distorting influence of a screen. “He’s a privileged man, but at the same time, he’s just as fucked up as she is,” says Amin. “He doesn’t know what he wants, he doesn’t know who he is. Although he might like Souad more than his girlfriend, he would never marry her. Social pressure drives him to do stuff, even if he’s not sure (it will make him) happy.”

It’s also during the second half that Rabab comes to life, revealing herself to be “the only one who’s trying to be authentic”. With Ahmed’s digital and real lives blurred, Rabab offers him his only honest connection. “She’s the only one who gets to see his real face,” Amin tells Dazed. “She’s the only one who knows what is really going on with him. There’s a bond and intimacy between them.”

Amin strived to achieve this feeling of authenticity in the characters’ experiences and relationships in the film. Inspired by her classmate’s childhood tragedy, the director wanted to find out how young women in Egypt today feel about the dualities of their identities. As the film’s co-writer Mahmoud Ezzat was “a sort of influencer on Twitter”, the pair reached out to his women followers to share their real life experiences.

“We started telling them things about the story, and they would say, ‘Oh, this wouldn’t happen, this would happen’,” reveals Amin, adding that the pair then chose to cast non-professionals to reflect “this really authentic view”. “During five months of rehearsals, (the cast) didn’t read the script,” she continues. “I started telling them parts of the scenes bit by bit, they would improvise, and we would write again based on these improvisations.”

The result is a genuine portrayal of Gen Z’s experience of girlhood in Egypt – something rarely seen on screen, and sometimes even scarcely discussed among friends. “We did a test screening for girls who are of a similar age and background to Souad and her sister,” explains Amin, “and they cried in certain scenes that I never thought they would. They were crying in the scene when (Ahmed and Souad) had phone sex – and I was shocked and sad at the same time because I felt that they related so much to what was happening. It was the first time they saw what they do (in real life) on screen, as if it could be accepted.”

Amin hopes that Souad provides young Egyptian women with something she never had growing up: namely, “the feeling that you’re represented or that what you’re thinking is accepted”. “I had to go on a big journey to accept myself and to stop lying – because it’s very normal (to lie in Egypt),” reflects Amin. “(Having Souad) would have made a huge difference for me.”

Souad is out now as part of the BFI’s Arab Cinema season, which introduces new works and important Arab filmmaker voices to the UK