The words “absurdist” and “comedy” are often used together to describe a type of movie that satirises the human condition. Egyptian filmmaker Omar El Zohairy’s Feathers breaks this pairing and shatters other presumptions along the way.

Zohairy’s Arabic-language feature debut is among the films that will be premiered at the online edition of this year’s Dharamshala International Film Festival (November 4-10). The movie’s premise is ripe for drollery: a brash and boorish man who lords over his wife and three children gets turned into a chicken by a magician.

The spell refuses to break and the magician disappears, leaving the woman with the responsibility of running the household.

Rather than being a send-up, Feathers is a deep dive into the grinding poverty, limited opportunity and overt misogyny in this unidentified corner of Egypt. If G Aravindan’s Kummatty, in which a boy is turned into a dog by a bogeyman, is a realist fairy tale, Feathers moves precisely and decisively in the opposite direction.

Zohairy uses mostly non-professional actors and a filming style dominated by ellipses and very tight frames, some of which slice and dice the human body and the spaces in which it is shot. The off-centre framing, unconventional compositions and desaturated blue-grey-brown palette lend a brittle intimacy and claustrophobia to the scenes. Animals contribute to a recurrent motif and heighten the sense of elemental brutality that poverty represents.

Feathers (2021). Courtesy Still Moving.

Several scenes are set indoors, in spaces that are covered with a film of dust emanating from a neighbouring factory. Amidst run-down gadgets and worn-out furniture, the woman strives to pay the rent, feed her children and ensure that the chicken that represents her husband stays well.

Her despair is invisible on her granite-hard face but increasingly evident through her actions. Despite barely a page of dialogue, and seemingly as tattered as the notes that are frequently passed around, the woman remains frighteningly focused on survival.

Feathers won the Critics Award at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. The movie has been subjected to a Pather Panchali-like critique for its unvarnished examination of poverty in Egypt. However, the journeys of its characters are universal and timeless.

Despite some pacing issues and a denouement that isn’t pulled off very well, the 112-minute movie is a trenchant and often heartbreaking chronicle of what it means for a poor woman to be suddenly bereft in a world run by men. Lead actor Demyana Nassar marvellously conveys a lifetime of suffering womanhood by keeping her head down and saying next to nothing and everything at once.

Feathers (2021).