As well as being subtle, tender and sad, this feature from Egyptian director Ayten Amin is one of those rare films which really engages with online existence and social media – yet without needing to flash up tweets and texts as onscreen graphics in the way most movies do. Souad meditates on the mysterious discrepancy between the image we project on social media and the reality behind it, and also how this discrepancy itself can be corrosive. And it also reflects on the eerie afterlife of a dead person’s Facebook page – like Jean Cocteau’s remark about a writer’s work carrying on like a ticking wristwatch on a dead soldier.
In a small town called Zagazig on Egypt’s eastern Nile delta, Souad (Bassant Ahmed) is a bright 19-year-old student who burnishes her vivacious image on social media. In a rather brilliant opening scene, we see her on a bus showing a picture on her phone to the old lady sitting next to her, and telling her how this is her fiance Ahmed and she herself is a medical student. Then in the next scene we see her showing this same picture to someone else and spinning a completely different story: she is trying out different images, different identities and existences; digital media is making this possible. Because the reality is she has never actually met Ahmed – despite secretly calling him, sexting him, leaving tempestuous voice memos, breaking up, making up.
Meanwhile Ahmed (Hussein Ghanem) lives far away in Alexandria; he is a much older guy – older than Souad herself perhaps realises – with a professional career generating online video content, sophisticated older friends and an older official girlfriend. And the third person in this triptych is Souad’s gentle, thoughtful sister Rabab (Basmala Elghaiesh) who is much closer to being the demurely obedient young Muslim woman that Souad has to be for her family: another of her personae, in fact. But Rabab modestly says that she is not as pretty as Souad: “I look like my father,” she says, a wonderfully sweet, sad line with which Basmala Elghaiesh steals the film.
These are three lives, three existences, their stories deeply and tragically bound up with each other, and, despite the apparent immediacy and intimacy of social media, fated to remain mysteries to each other.