Anas Tolba's Between Two Seas starts out calmly enough, at least for the semi-rural, impoverished community in which the film is set. Tolba's feature film debut challenges gendered conventions in Egypt's marginalised communities, primarily through the struggles of its female characters and the experiences they eventually overcome.
What is the film about?
Save for arguments between the strong-willed Zahra and her mother Zakeya, and intergenerational quarrels best embodied when Zakeya proclaims that it might be time for her preteen granddaughter to be married, little seems out of the ordinary in Geziret El Dahab.
In an example of how young women lack support on the island, Zakeya and her son-in-law, Zahra's husband, Hassan, furtively orchestrate the eldest granddaughter Shahd's genital mutilation, with help from a nurse called Sayed. The brilliantly shot scene resembles a dream of sorts, grippingly capturing Shahd's thoughts, a blur of emotions and her parents' nervous words of consolation. This saves the audience from the trauma of a more literal portrayal of genital mutilation, while also effectively immersing them in Shahd's world. That is interrupted when Hassan rushes his daughter to the hospital with a bloodied blanket wrapped around her waist. She is pronounced dead shortly afterwards.
While that harrowing episode might be the centre of the film's conflict, Between Two Seas also tackles gender-based violence at large. Another female character, Soumaya, is regularly beaten, shouted at and even thrown out of the house by her husband, who demands that she remain at his and his father's beck and call, fulfilling menial chores and cooking hearty meals. It is no surprise that the love-starved Soumaya develops an affection for her father-in-law Sheikh Abdelhamid's nemesis, young Sheikh Islam, who throughout the film embodies tolerant and balanced values. The conflict between the men, an effective subplot to a film packed with feminist messages, is refreshingly authentic.
The significance of the rural location to the story
Geziret El Dahab is a short boat ride from the Cairo or Giza banks of the Nile, a commute you can imagine many people making on a daily basis. But while the slums of the island might not seem too different from the more urban slum dwellings nearby, across the river, Geziret El Dahab arguably exists on the margins of society.
"The island is located in Cairo geographically, yet it is also quite isolated. There's a physical barrier between it and modernisation in the form of the surrounding river; that barrier is symbolic of the cultural, educational and awareness gap [compared to more urbanised areas]," Tolba says. "It's also very much an agricultural community, although the social issues it faces aren't all too different from those occurring in other areas in Cairo."
The island setting also offers a form of aesthetic relief through scenes of the deep blue, vast river, the plants on the riverbank and the fragile felucca boats calmly floating on the water. The rich visual language in Between Two Seas provides a catharsis to the overwhelming, emotionally charged realities facing each of the film's central characters. In a touching scene in which Hassan expresses remorse to his wife Zahra, the Nile glimmers in the background and the early morning sunlight gently shines between tree branches, suggesting that even in times of tragedy, there is room for optimism and forgiveness. The elegance of similar contemplative shots reflect the subdued beauty just below the surface in a community marred by social injustice, perhaps suggesting that this brighter perspective might be how Shahd would have seen Geziret El Dahab.
Between Two Seas, which was filmed last summer, had its premiere at the Aswan International Women Festival in late February, and it has won global recognition, including the Best Narrative Feature award and a Certificate of Outstanding Achievement at this year's Brooklyn Film Festival. And yet the film presented most of its main cast with the first leading roles of their careers, and Tolba says he was keen to use actors who were less well known. "If viewers see a film in which they immediately recognise the actors, they will inadvertently be aware, at least in their subconscious, that they're watching actors performing a fictitious work," he says. "Viewers are more likely to forget this, and to relate and sympathise with the characters when that isn't the case." Several members of the cast had previously performed supporting roles in similar productions, such as the 2011 Aids awareness film Asmaa and the 2013 alternative history TV series Zaat.
Produced by Axeer studio in collaboration with UN Women and Egypt's National Council for Women, Between Two Seas was written by renowned scriptwriter Mariam Naoum – celebrated for her erudite storytelling that deals with gender issues through a portrayal of strong, autonomous female characters – with the help of Amany El Tounsy and Karim El Dalil.
The message behind the film
According to feminist discourse, a woman's most prominent oppressor is often another woman. In the Geziret El Dahab portrayed in Between Two Seas, that certainly rings true. Zakeya is shown to be both an ill-informed matriarch and the domineering orchestrator of her granddaughter's mutilation, just as Soumaya's mother is similarly – albeit less viciously – tyrannical. Yet both of the film's elderly female characters are more worthy of sympathy than condemnation, as they are victims of poverty and lack access to adequate health care and education services. Each woman eventually realises, in their own way, that perpetuating misogyny is not the path to improving their circumstances.
"For me, the film's message is that the primary cause for the issues women face, in particular [less privileged] socioeconomic segments, comes down to a lack of awareness and poor access to education in their communities," Tolba says. "All the numbers and statistics prove this, especially concerning women and girls pushed out of school at an early age either to marry or because marriage is wrongly believed to be their sole destiny."
The main characters in the story, Zahra, Soumaya and Amal, are all in their late twenties, but each are, in their own way, empowered through the film's events to pursue an academic degree, a reliable source of income or a healthy marriage. "There's a tendency in 'realist' films [presenting social issues and poverty] to deliver in an angle that is revolting in some way," says Tolba.
"While I agree that reality can be disheartening, I am a firm believer that, as filmmakers, we should create films that are visually pleasing. In shooting the film, we were keen to illuminate embattled characters living difficult lives, but to also present how even this dark terrain is home to vast, green spaces, plants and so forth … because that's what truly reflects reality, there's always hope."
Between Two Seas will release in cinemas across Egypt this month