AL BARSHA, Egypt — When the star of “Feathers,” the most talked about — and critically acclaimed — Egyptian movie of the past year, showed up to shoot her first scenes, she had never acted before. She could not even read her lines.
“I wanted to be educated, and my father would’ve loved to get us into school, but he couldn’t afford it,” said Damiana Nassar, 40, who before acting in the film was a stay-at-home mother in the Upper Egyptian village of Al Barsha. “All those kids,” she said — eight of them.
As it turned out, Ms. Nassar’s résumé was perfect for the role. In “Feathers,” she plays a long-suffering mother of three whose husband, a factory worker who seems to speak to her only when telling her what to make for dinner, is turned into a chicken by the magician at their son’s birthday party. The magician can’t undo his trick. He shrugs.
And there they are, clinging to their grimy, smoky apartment as debts and eviction loom: one white chicken, three little boys and one increasingly desperate woman, whose life already looked about as dreary as it could get even before her husband metamorphosed into poultry.
The film won two major prizes at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the first Egyptian feature to win at Cannes. When “Feathers” made what could have been a triumphant return home last fall, however, it quickly ran into a new Egyptian political taboo. It had shown a side of Egypt that was poor and dreary, not the modernizing, prosperous Egypt its president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, claims to be building. In a country where the state’s tight hold on freedom of expression increasingly extends to its once-proud film industry, that would not fly.
For now, at least, the movie will remain offscreen for most Egyptians.
Several well-known actors walked out of its screening at the El Gouna Film Festival, its first in Egypt, protesting what they said was “an insult to Egypt’s reputation.” News media outlets and anchors close to the government accused the film of defaming the country, while others quietly scrubbed mention of its Cannes awards from their websites.
Past Egyptian movies and books have earned national ire for portraying poverty and dysfunction, not to mention for sexy scenes, gay content or what religious conservatives considered blasphemy. Still, for much of the last century, censors let pass depictions of police brutality, corruption and other ills.
But since Mr. el-Sisi …….