Withered Green: A new brand of realism

In one fleeting scene in Mohammed Hammad’s debut feature Withered Green (2017), the protagonist, Iman (Heba Ali in her first on-screen role), stands in one branch of the dessert chain store she works for. Her colleague wraps two cakes, a gift from the owner on the occasion of Iman’s sister’s engagement. Neither woman utters a word throughout this exchange, and the film swiftly moves on to another scene.

While discussing the film after the credits had rolled, a friend mentioned this scene and posed a question that seemed simple, yet wasn’t really that easy to answer: “Why don’t the two women talk?” In real life, a similar moment between two middle-class women in their 30s in a neighborhood like Abbasseya (where most of the film is set), would be filled with chatter, gossip about the suitor and plenty of congratulations and well-wishing. The scene, then, feels a bit too silent, prompting one to wonder why the director made such a choice.

At first glance, Withered Green seems to be just another addition to the genre of films referred to by many —whether asserting or negating their relationship to it—as “independent cinema.” The film shares many familiar artistic characteristics with these works, although in Hammad’s film they are better employed and more sophisticated. Followers of contemporary Egyptian cinema have seen the same aesthetics over and over again for nearly a decade now, starting with Ibrahim El Batout’s Ein Shams (2008) and probably not ending with Hammad’s film: non-professional actors, minimal dialogue, scarce or non-existent music and a firm commitment to a measure of realism. Withered Green, however, represents one of the most serious and masterful attempts at turning these aesthetics into more than a mere personal preference, employing them as dramatic tools which serve specific narrative functions.

The film unfolds over several days preceding a visit from a suitor for Iman’s sister, Noha (Asmaa Fawzi). Both their parents have died, as we come to understand, and the story follows Iman’s struggles as she attempts to find a male relative willing to meet the groom’s family in place of their father. Despite the simplicity of the plot, Withered Green takes us on a deeper journey within the protagonist, revealing some of the hardships of living as a woman in Cairo.

Hammad doesn’t load his film with condensed displays of discrimination endured by Iman in the streets or at her workplace. Instead, he frames her scenes in these public places to explore deeper, more rooted and less tangible modes of oppression. It is a dull life that offers little hope, and fewer prospects.

The film opens with a visual depiction of its title— a shot of Iman’s balcony, filled with flowerpots in different shapes and sizes, most of which house cactuses and succulents—before planting the seeds that hint at the themes which will unfold in the ensuing scenes. We see Iman visit a doctor, concerned that she hasn’t been getting her period for two months, and later find ourselves wondering: What is it that this woman hides, beneath her silence and her constant prayers? As the film’s events progress, the conflict between the dryness of Iman’s life and the greenness of her soul (as implied in the film’s name) is further revealed.

Iman’s days go heavily by. The film follows her daily commute to work, the hours she spends at the dessert store, the emptiness of her room, which Hammad films from similar angles in each scene, inviting viewers to empathize with his protagonist, and her ongoing quest for an uncle to meet the family of her sister’s suitor. She is gradually revealed to be a lonely woman who, despite the lack of a support system of any kind, is still able to be a giving sister who hopes to give Noha a chance at a different life. Her frustrations hamper her, but she pulls through.

In an interview with Al-Qahera newspaper, Hammad cites several reasons for choosing a first-time actor to play the lead role in Withered Green. “For the story to genuinely move viewers, they must have no predetermined impressions about the actors they watch on-screen,” he said. Hammad’s other stylistic choices, such as his color palette, structured compositions and a music-free soundtrack, each play a significant role in the process of “genuinely moving viewers.”

Cold colors dominate the film, with green, blue, grey and khaki conveying the sense of stagnation that pervades Iman’s world. The director also plays with reflections as a constant nod to the two aspects of the protagonist’s character. Iman’s house, too, appears as a multi-layered space where the interplay between light and dark invites viewers to delve further into the film’s details. With the same purpose, Hammad incorporates a soundtrack where music never intrudes to impose certain emotions—instead, it conveys the everyday sounds of reality. The director is not original in using these elements, but he is intelligent in how he brings them together to serve his story and play a narrative role in Withered Green, rendering them more than a mere imitation of a certain, popular style.

Hammad has reiterated in a number of interviews that his aim was to create a realistic film, which often leads to comparisons with the tradition of realism in Egyptian cinema. Withered Green, however, offers a different kind of realism, one that does not derive its visual language and tools of expression from the Egyptian New Realism movement of the 1980s, or from earlier attempts at portraying real life through the use of hand-held cameras and a random, scattered soundtrack. It is a realism that adopts a fresh interpretation of reality, as it manifests in the filmmaker’s head.

Bearing this approach could allow for both a more comprehensive understanding of the film and the nature of the “realism” desired by both filmmaker and audience. It is perhaps through this we can begin to decipher why the two women in the dessert store scene are silent when it would be more realistic for them to speak.

Withered Green screened in the ‘New Egyptian Cinema’ section in this year’s edition of the Cairo International Film Festival.

Translated by Yasmine Zohdi

Muhammad El-Hajj 

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