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By: The New York Times –

A stay-at-home mother deprived of an education, Damiana Nassar played a woman much like herself in “Feathers,” a Cannes winner that few in Egypt can see.

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 came to power in 2013, the government has institutionalized Egypt’s thin skin, arresting naysayers, smothering critical literature and making it clear to the film and television industry that they should push the state’s preferred narrative.

The bad guys: the Muslim Brotherhood, the political Islamist group that held power before Mr. el-Sisi. The good guys: the army, police and security services.

“It’s not new, this kind of reaction. It’s an old, entrenched nationalism and a sense that you should cover up bad things,” said Ezzedine C. Fishere, an Egyptian novelist and former diplomat whose books have been adapted for Egyptian television. “What’s different this time is the regime’s connection. Any criticism of anything Egyptian is somehow felt by the regime as a criticism to itself.”

Inconveniently for “Feathers” naysayers, parts of the film look like they could have been plucked straight from life in Ms. Nassar’s village. Some Egyptian viewers who managed to watch a pirated version online were under the impression that the movie had been filmed in Ms. Nassar’s actual house.

Not so. But it was not much of a stretch, either. Her home in Al Barsha, a village with four churches for Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, a couple of mosques, and braying donkeys that carry farmers to the green fields stretching down to the Nile River, is built of brick, while her character is walled in by concrete and soiled tile. But Ms. Nassar, too, has long carried the bulk of the household burdens.

The second eldest of six girls and two boys in a Coptic family, she was 12 when her father went searching for work in another city. She and her sister started laboring in the fields, rising at dawn to harvest wheat and corn and feed the animals, returning at sunset to help their mother around the house.

She never received any schooling, apart from some literacy classes where she learned the Arabic alphabet, enough to read the names of contacts in her phone. In an interview in the small front room of her home, which contained a bed covered with a floral blanket, a small refrigerator and not much else, she summarized her life succinctly. “We did everything,” she said, “then we got older and got married, and we finally stopped working.”

She was 19 when she got married, to a cousin. (“They’d bring you the man and say, this is who you’re marrying,” she said of her courtship.) A couple of years later, she was a mother.

“I was happy to work in the fields, to help out, but I wanted to be educated,” she said. “I want all my children to go to school and not be like their mom and dad.”

Ms. Nassar, right, with fans and her son Mario, back and second from the left, at an arts institute in her village. Credit…Ali Zaraay

It was her daughter Heidi, 19, who came home one day from a local acting workshop and told her mother a director had come to town, looking to cast his lead.

Ms. Nassar thought, Why not? She first checked with her son, Mario, to make sure that auditioning would not be “eib,” or shameful — a concept that governs a lot of behavior in Egypt. As head of the household in the absence of his father, whose work frequently kept him from home for extended periods, Mario gave her his blessing. (So did her husband, later on.)

Ms. Nassar had grown up mesmerized by Egyptian films and television, wishing she could become an actress. “What’s the difference between these people and me?” she recalled thinking. “Is it because they’re educated and I’m not?”

The director, Omar el-Zohairy, cast her after just one conversation, she said, telling her that he had been looking for a fresh face. (Mr. el-Zohairy declined to be interviewed, with press representatives explaining that the producers hoped to avoid stirring up further attention.)

Perhaps Ms. Nassar’s experience helped. Like many women from poor families in Egypt, whose husbands migrate to other Arab countries or other parts of the country to work and send money home, Ms. Nassar carries the household herself — onscreen and off.

For years, Ms. Nassar’s husband worked as a migrant laborer in Libya. For a time he sold clothes from a street stand in Badr City, a satellite of Cairo five hours’ drive from Al Barsha. Then he found work in a shoe factory in Tanta, even farther from home, visiting his family for a couple of weeks every few months.

“The overlap is, I had to do everything when my husband was away,” she said of her affinity for her character. “So does she.”

Whether it was because of the overlap — the chores she performs in the movie, whether bathing a child, scrubbing pans or chopping eggplant, were, after all, her everyday reality — or her talent, Ms. Nassar soon won fans for her performance. After the Cannes wins, her son set up an official Facebook page for her. Within days, it had 47,000 followers. Social media users praised her natural, radiant warmth, and her church held a ceremony to honor “the star.”

“Damiana Nassar of Minya was the most beautiful and genuine one at the El Gouna festival,” Khaled el-Nabawy, an actor, tweeted after the festival. “Her performance in the ‘Feathers’ film is humbling to professionals.”

But perhaps no one was more thrilled than her neighbors, who felt that, at last, others might recognize their struggle.

Ms. Nassar was quick to praise Mr. el-Sisi and his “Decent Life” welfare initiative, under which she receives a monthly stipend of about $29. But as she and other Al Barsha residents were quick to note, the government had not quite fixed everything.

“They don’t see the lives that we live,” said Mariam Sam, 23, of the film’s critics. “They’ve never been to a place like this.”

As an art house movie, “Feathers” was never destined for commercial movie screens in its home country, but it was reported to be slated for release in December. In January, however, a spokeswoman for the production said there were no plans to release it in Egypt.


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