Azza’s brown young woman’s body glows in the fading sunlight as she glides across the tranquil turquoise waters of the empty swimming pool. Her white bra is visible underneath her colorful one-piece swimsuit. It’s unthinkable for her to wear just a swimsuit in public, even if there are no men around to see. She doesn’t know that the neighborhood boys are watching her from a concealed spot, and — even though they mock and tease her every day — the sight of her pure, unfiltered joy in the water is so delightful they can’t help but smile in amused silence.
It is one of the most moving scenes in Kamla Abu Zikry’s Yom Setat (A Day for Women), which opened last year’s Cairo International Film Festival(CIFF) and was one of two Egyptian films that made it to the competition’s final lineup.
Abu Zikry’s best-known picture is Wahed-Sefr (One-Nil, 2009), a critically acclaimed drama with a similar political message, yet one where class, rather than gender, is the main catalyst. It was in her later contributions to television — Zaat (2013) and Segn al-Nesa (Women’s Prison, 2014), both scripted by Mariam Naoum, the screenwriter behind One-Nil — that Abu Zikry’s feminist inclinations became clear as a driving force behind her work. A Day for Women is one more step along that path, not only in terms of content but production: the film has a female producer (Ilham Shahin, who also stars), writer (Hanaa Atteya) and DOP (Nancy Abdel Fattah). It also sees Abu Zikry develop her tools as a filmmaker and storyteller, resulting in an film that is, despite its weaknesses, her most sophisticated yet, both technically and thematically.
Azza (Nahed El Sebaï), has a mental condition, perhaps the result of a trauma suffered when her parents died in an accident. She behaves with a child’s uncalculated abandon, even though she is a fully-grown woman, and has therefore garnered a reputation as the neighborhood “idiot.” Yet this doesn’t stop Ibrahim (Ahmed Dawoud), a handsome young mechanic spying with the boys, from falling for her.
Sebaï won best actress award at CIFF for her role, but hers isn’t the only performance that stands out. She is part of a trio of remarkable female characters at the heart of the film, the other two being Laila (Nelly Karim) and Shamiya (Shahin). It is the end of the Mubarak era, specifically the year 2009, and all three women live in an impoverished Cairo neighborhood by the Citadel. The government has recently opened a swimming pool at the local community center, and when the lifeguard Captain Bahgat (Eyad Nassar) announces that every Sunday will be reserved exclusively for women, Azza, unencumbered by most of the other women’s inhibitions, is the first to partake.
The most resistant to the idea is Laila, who lost her son and husband to the sea in the infamous Al-Salam Ferry accident of 2006, and is still in mourning. Currently living with and providing for her fun-loving father, Farghaly (Farouk Al-Fishawy), and her disapproving fundamentalist brother Ali (Ahmed Al-Fishawy), she spends most of her time in a tiny perfume shop where she mixes essences and sells them, but has otherwise lost interest in human interaction. Shamiya often keeps her company, attempting to distract her with anecdotes. Having spent most of her adult life working as a nude model for painters, Shamiya is confident, and the most outwardly rebellious of the women. She smokes, paints her lips a bright red, lets her black veil slide back to reveal her hair, and wears sexy high heels that the camera zooms in on as she maneuvers to avoid stepping into the sewage water covering the ground. Walking in itself, for a woman in her shoes, is a struggle.
So when the neighborhood women eventually flock to the pool and undress, their discarded veils piling up on top of one another, we know they’re shedding so much more than clothes. Gradually, the unfamiliar pool becomes their comfort zone, the one place where they can simply be, away from society’s expectations. They talk, eat, laugh, they wax their legs and trim each other’s eyebrows. They cry and they dance. Going to the pool every week becomes a process of collective catharsis. Laila begins to heal, and helps Shamiya, spurned years ago by a man she has never stopped longing for, deal with her pain too.
The chaos and noise, abundant in the neighborhood’s narrow streets and alleyways as well as by the pool, are often emphasized in long-shots and counterposed by lengthy, contemplative close-ups that, coupled with Tamer Karawan’s poignant yet strangely uplifting music, soften the film around the edges, further contributing to its “femininity.” Yet some scenes seem to drag on longer than they should, highlighting a deeper problem in the film’s pacing. It has been widely reported that Abu Zikry chose to remove a considerable chunk of her film in post-production, after it was rejected by the Venice Film Festival for being too long. The decision, unfortunately, comes at the expense of the film’s flow, as well as the development of its characters, and the editing fails to cover the ragged seams.
But the most obvious shortcoming is the men. As a result of the removal of most of his scenes, Farouk al-Fishawy’s role as Farghaly comes off as bland and ineffective. His relationship to Laila is unclear (for no particular reason, we only find out for sure that he is her father well into the film), and his character serves no dramatic purpose. Laila’s brother, meanwhile, has a clear function: he represents religious extremism, a notion that is admittedly hard to avoid if your focus is oppressed women in a city like Cairo. Yet, like most Egyptian films to date, A Day for Women fails to depict the ultra-religious character with depth or complexity, opting instead for the usual stereotype of the sexually frustrated brute, made even more shallow by the younger Fishawy’s one-dimensional performance. The glitches in the portrayal of both father and son make their final melodramatic confrontation, no doubt intended to be a tearjerker, feel forced and unconvincing.
Similarly, a pivotal, emotionally-charged scene between Ahmed (Mahmoud Hemeida) and Shamiya backfires due to the absence of proper build-up. Everything we know about Ahmed up to that point, we have found out through dialogue as he recounted stories of his past; we don’t really have a sense of who he is. Hearing about a character rather than seeing them can work in literature, but in film it’s rarely a good idea.
This is not to say that such exposition is always unwelcome. One of the film’s most important moments is a monologue where a drunk Shamiya laments her loneliness and the life choices that lead her to it. She complains of the hot flushes brought on by menopause, and mourns her beautiful body, now sagging with the weight of her advancing age, never having known the pleasures of sex. When Shamiya speaks of her decision to stay a virgin, her voice drips with regret: “I have demeaned my own body,” she says. Usually when such language is used by a woman in an Egyptian film, you’d expect her to be referring to the “disgrace” of having had sex outside the confines of marriage, yet here it is the opposite. Shamiya thinks she has debased her body by depriving it of an experience it was designed to enjoy. Such a judgment-free acknowledgment of female sexuality, especially at middle age, is uncommon in Egyptian cinema.
This isn’t the only instance where A Day for Women does justice to the issue. Although the film is chiefly about women’s bodies, the camera almost never falls into the trap of assuming a male gaze. The women’s figures are not beautified or hyper-sexualized; they come in all shapes and sizes, they are dressed in mismatched and unflattering outfits, their movements are clumsy and spontaneous — they are real. And while there is lust in Ibrahim’s eyes as they follow Azza in the scene mentioned earlier, it is reciprocated: later, Azza hides too, and watches him with equal desire, admiring the movement of his muscled arms as he changes a tire. It may be a man’s world, but this is definitely not a man’s film.
A Day for Women is imperfect, and its flaws sit right at its center. Yet it honors its subject, and lives up to its name.