AL BARSHA, Egypt — When the star of “Feathers,” probably the most talked about — and critically acclaimed — Egyptian film of the previous yr, confirmed as much as shoot her first scenes, she had by no means acted earlier than. She couldn’t even learn her strains.
“I wished to be educated, and my father would’ve liked to get us into college, however he couldn’t afford it,” stated Damiana Nassar, 40, who earlier than performing within the movie was a stay-at-home mom within the Higher Egyptian village of Al Barsha. “All these children,” she stated — eight of them.
Because it turned out, Ms. Nassar’s résumé was excellent for the function. In “Feathers,” she performs a long-suffering mom of three whose husband, a manufacturing unit employee who appears to talk to her solely when telling her what to make for dinner, is become a hen by the magician at their son’s party. The magician can’t undo his trick. He shrugs.
And there they’re, clinging to their dirty, smoky residence as money owed and eviction loom: one white hen, three little boys and one more and more determined girl, whose life already appeared about as dreary because it may get even earlier than her husband metamorphosed into poultry.
The movie gained two main prizes on the Cannes Movie Competition final yr, the primary Egyptian characteristic to win at Cannes. When “Feathers” made what may have been a triumphant return dwelling final fall, nonetheless, it rapidly bumped into a new Egyptian political taboo. It had proven a facet of Egypt that was poor and dreary, not the modernizing, affluent Egypt its president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, claims to be constructing. In a rustic the place the state’s tight maintain on freedom of expression more and more extends to its once-proud movie business, that may not fly.
For now, at the least, the film will stay offscreen for many Egyptians.
A number of well-known actors walked out of its screening on the El Gouna Movie Competition, its first in Egypt, protesting what they stated was “an insult to Egypt’s repute.” Information media shops and anchors near the federal government accused the movie of defaming the nation, whereas others quietly scrubbed point out of its Cannes awards from their web sites.
Previous Egyptian motion pictures and books have earned nationwide ire for portraying poverty and dysfunction, to not point out for attractive scenes, homosexual content material or what non secular conservatives thought of blasphemy. Nonetheless, for a lot of the final century, censors let move depictions of police brutality, corruption and different ills.
However since Mr. el-Sisi got here to energy in 2013, the federal government has institutionalized Egypt’s skinny pores and skin, arresting naysayers, smothering critical literature and making it clear to the movie and tv business that they need to push the state’s preferred narrative.
The bad guys: the Muslim Brotherhood, the political Islamist group that held energy earlier than Mr. el-Sisi. The nice guys: the military, police and safety companies.
“It’s not new, this type of response. It’s an outdated, entrenched nationalism and a way that you must cowl up dangerous issues,” stated Ezzedine C. Fishere, an Egyptian novelist and former diplomat whose books have been tailored for Egyptian tv. “What’s completely different this time is the regime’s connection. Any criticism of something Egyptian is by some means felt by the regime as a criticism to itself.”
Inconveniently for “Feathers” naysayers, elements of the movie appear to be they might have been plucked straight from life in Ms. Nassar’s village. Some Egyptian viewers who managed to look at a pirated model on-line had been underneath the impression that the film had been filmed in Ms. Nassar’s precise home.
Not so. But it surely was not a lot of a stretch, both. Her dwelling in Al Barsha, a village with 4 church buildings for Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, a few mosques, and braying donkeys that carry farmers to the inexperienced fields stretching right down to the Nile River, is constructed of brick, whereas her character is walled in by concrete and dirty tile. However Ms. Nassar, too, has lengthy carried the majority of the family burdens.
The second eldest of six women and two boys in a Coptic household, she was 12 when her father went trying to find work in one other metropolis. She and her sister began laboring within the fields, rising at daybreak to reap wheat and corn and feed the animals, returning at sundown to assist their mom round the home.
She by no means acquired any education, other than some literacy lessons the place she realized the Arabic alphabet, sufficient to learn the names of contacts in her telephone. In an interview within the small entrance room of her dwelling, which contained a mattress lined with a floral blanket, a small fridge and never a lot else, she summarized her life succinctly. “We did the whole lot,” she stated, “then we bought older and bought married, and we lastly stopped working.”
She was 19 when she bought married, to a cousin. (“They’d convey you the person and say, that is who you’re marrying,” she stated of her courtship.) A few years later, she was a mom.
“I used to be completely satisfied to work within the fields, to assist out, however I wished to be educated,” she stated. “I need all my youngsters to go to high school and never be like their mother and pop.”
It was her daughter Heidi, 19, who got here dwelling in the future from a neighborhood performing workshop and instructed her mom a director had come to city, seeking to forged his lead.
Ms. Nassar thought, Why not? She first checked together with her son, Mario, to make it possible for auditioning wouldn’t be “eib,” or shameful — an idea that governs plenty of habits in Egypt. As head of the family within the absence of his father, whose work often saved him from dwelling for prolonged durations, Mario gave her his blessing. (So did her husband, in a while.)
Ms. Nassar had grown up mesmerized by Egyptian movies and tv, wishing she may turn out to be an actress. “What’s the distinction between these folks and me?” she recalled pondering. “Is it as a result of they’re educated and I’m not?”
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The director, Omar el-Zohairy, forged her after only one dialog, she stated, telling her that he had been in search of a recent face. (Mr. el-Zohairy declined to be interviewed, with press representatives explaining that the producers hoped to keep away from stirring up additional consideration.)
Maybe Ms. Nassar’s expertise helped. Like many ladies from poor households in Egypt, whose husbands migrate to different Arab international locations or different elements of the nation to work and ship cash dwelling, Ms. Nassar carries the family herself — onscreen and off.
For years, Ms. Nassar’s husband labored as a migrant laborer in Libya. For a time he bought garments from a road stand in Badr Metropolis, a satellite tv for pc of Cairo 5 hours’ drive from Al Barsha. Then he discovered work in a shoe manufacturing unit in Tanta, even farther from dwelling, visiting his household for a few weeks each few months.
“The overlap is, I needed to do the whole lot when my husband was away,” she stated of her affinity for her character. “So does she.”
Whether or not it was due to the overlap — the chores she performs within the film, whether or not bathing a toddler, scrubbing pans or chopping eggplant, had been, in spite of everything, her on a regular basis actuality — or her expertise, Ms. Nassar quickly gained followers for her efficiency. After the Cannes wins, her son arrange an official Fb web page for her. Inside days, it had 47,000 followers. Social media customers praised her pure, radiant heat, and her church held a ceremony to honor “the star.”
“Damiana Nassar of Minya was probably the most lovely and real one on the El Gouna pageant,” Khaled el-Nabawy, an actor, tweeted after the pageant. “Her efficiency within the ‘Feathers’ movie is humbling to professionals.”
However maybe nobody was extra thrilled than her neighbors, who felt that, finally, others would possibly acknowledge their battle.
Ms. Nassar was fast to reward Mr. el-Sisi and his “First rate Life” welfare initiative, underneath which she receives a month-to-month stipend of about $29. However as she and different Al Barsha residents had been fast to notice, the federal government had not fairly mounted the whole lot.
“They don’t see the lives that we dwell,” stated Mariam Sam, 23, of the movie’s critics. “They’ve by no means been to a spot like this.”
As an artwork home film, “Feathers” was by no means destined for business film screens in its dwelling nation, however it was reported to be slated for launch in December. In January, nonetheless, a spokeswoman for the manufacturing stated there have been no plans to launch it in Egypt.
Nada Rashwan contributed reporting.