LIFF 2020 Highlights: The Trap

Programme: Film Africa 2020 Baobab Award 2: Guest Programmes

Director: Nada Riyadh

Starring: Shaza Moharam, Islam Alaa

Length: 21 minutes

Country: Egypt/Germany

CW: This article contains discussion of domestic violence.

Embedded within the many screenings at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival 2020 are some special guest programmes, one of which comes from Film Africa and the 2020 Baobab Award, which has had its selection split into two separate programmes here. The second of them is made up of five beautifully constructed, elegantly told films, all with a strong emotional pull. Each film in this collection is worthy of praise, but it is Nada Riyadh’s The Trap that most sticks in the memory.

It is a near-harrowing experience, but also an urgent and necessary one that is told with great skill and an identifiable, unwavering style. Riyadh’s film tells the story of Aya (Shaza Moharam) and Islam (Islam Alaa), a young unmarried couple spending some time together at the Egyptian coast. Steadily revealing more and more to us about their relationship as the film goes on, what is immediately clear in The Trap is that Aya is less than comfortable. Constantly averting her gaze from strangers and moving with an obvious physical tension, we can glean from Moharam’s performance that all is not well for Aya.

Islam seems nice enough, and in the first scenes it is a local shopkeeper who gives Aya more cause to worry than anyone else. Before long, though, Aya requests Islam does not draw attention with his public displays of affection, and he snaps. Islam, clearly holding a high level of anger and frustration under the surface until now, flings his shopping bag against a post and the goods spill everywhere. It is a small act, but the fear it puts into Aya is obvious. We can extrapolate from here on in that Aya is in an abusive relationship, and The Trap therefore progresses with a horribly gripping tension underpinning the whole short.

The film succeeds as a portrait of an abusive relationship on several levels, most notably in its refusal to sensationalise events, the palpable fear it conjures, and its highlighting of emotional manipulation. The latter is an important and often talked about element of abuse, sharing ground with the idea of gaslighting. At several points in the film Islam tells Aya how much he loves her, always when he senses she is going to leave, when he wants sex, or both. In all of romantic cinema we are told that those three little words mean so much, and in depictions of coercive control like this we see how that is exploited by an abuser to keep hold of their victim. 

What really impresses though is Riyadh’s bold decision to show mostly less sensational, less obvious physical and verbal aggressions against Aya. Until the heart-breaking closing scenes, the majority of Islam’s abuse consists of forceful kissing, grabbing, shouting, slamming of walls, and other threatening behaviour. What is so successful about Riyadh’s decision to focus on this over a simple physical attack is that the film is possibly more frightening for it. If Aya were to leave, you can just imagine how Islam could get away with this behaviour and she could be belittled. Hence her low-level reticence at leaving, stemming from the thought that the departure could lead to the worst violence yet, so maybe she’s better off staying. Herein lies the trap of the title.

It is fear that really drives The Trap. Some dramas about these issues might focus on vindication, revenge or optimistic escape, but Riyadh’s aim is to authentically convey the sheer terror Aya feels on a permanent basis. Because Islam’s abuse is largely understated, there is no respite. There is no explosion and calm aftermath, but a constant aggression and control, where Aya is both suffering and fearing further suffering simultaneously. It is like watching a horror movie without the catharsis of a jump scare. The whole thing feels horribly real, which is a testament to the skill of Riyadh and her actors.

Despite its clear filmmaking skill and compelling narrative, The Trap is a tough watch. There’s something similar going on with Morad Mostafa’s Henet Ward, which progresses nice and calmly for about 90 per cent of its running time before an audacious, heart-stopping climax that is both cleverly conceived and brilliantly executed. Mostafa hides the film’s thematic strands beneath the surface until this point, then explodes them all in shocking, yet somehow inevitable, fashion.

If you are looking for something with a bit more warmth in the Film Africa program then you would be better served by Karabo Lediya’s What Did You Dream which convincingly portrays familial bonds and the cheeky exuberance of youth whilst dropping in asides about race in modern day South Africa too. Film Africa 2020 Baobab Award 2 is a heavy-going programme of shorts, but is one that gives a platform to a host of magnificently talented filmmakers, tackling their respective subjects with a clear-eyed vigour and energy.

Film Africa 2020 Baobab Award 2: Guest Programmes is available to stream on the Leeds Film Player until the end of the festival on 19th November.

Andrew Young