Should any filmmaker suddenly find themselves in need of a performing chicken or two for their movie, there’s a director in Cannes who knows exactly what to do.
According to Omar El Zohairy, while there may only be one chicken in his directorial feature debut Feathers — having its world premiere in the Critics’ Weeks sidebar — such was the importance of the role that the film’s animal handler (a man more accustomed to working with larger creatures, such as dogs and lions) actually used about 30 in all. And this flock — plucked (sorry) from obscurity for their big-screen break — had to be specially trained.
“He took them to his farm and started to explore their behavior,” says the Egyptian director, who returns to Cannes seven years after screening his student short The Aftermath of the Inauguration of the Public Toilet at Kilometre 375 in the Cinefondation competition. “And he discovered that they’re actually very easy to control, that anything we wanted from the chickens we could achieve.”
Set in an unnamed yet dusty and run-down part of Egypt that has a very distinct aesthetic feel, Feathers follows a meek and almost entirely silent mother whose thankless existence is entirely dedicated to her family.
But this daily grind of repetitive, mundane chores is turned upside down after her son’s fourth birthday party when her husband — an authoritarian figure more concerned with acquiring chintzy water features for their squalid apartment than paying the rent — takes part in a magic trick that transforms him into a chicken. The only problem is: he won’t turn back.
Treated with comically absurdist straightness and seriousness, this plot twist helps pry open a window into the difficulties faced by many ordinary Egyptian families, with the mother — who like all the characters remains nameless — now finding herself having to seek out an income, care for both her children and her new pecking, seed-chomping pet, while also trying to find a way to reverse the magical mistake.
“I believe that in cinema you need to show the audience something that they’ve never seen before in their life, but they need to see it through you,” says El Zohairy, who previously worked as an assistant director for some giants of Egyptian filmmaking, including Yousry Nasrallah. “This is typical of me — I always see the absurd things, I don’t take things very seriously as a person.”
While the tale of a family that loses its main breadwinner and is forced to find a way to get by may seem cliched, El Zohairy says its unconventional feathery element is a storytelling tool that can reveal deeper truths. “This is drama for me,” he explains. “It tells a lot about how the people feel about themselves, their life and their situation. I think sometimes being funny or absurd is something that can grab the audience’s attention. So I like absurdity as a person. We live in a crazy world now, so it’s nice to be absurd.”