AL BARSHA, Egypt – When the star of ‘Feathers’, the most talked about – and critically acclaimed – Egyptian film of the past year, showed up to shoot her first scenes, she had never acted before. She couldn’t even read his lines.

“I wanted to be educated, and my father would have loved to enroll us in school, but he couldn’t afford it,” said Damiana Nassar, 40, who before starring in the film was a stay-at-home mom at the Upper Egyptian village of Al Barsha. “All these kids,” she said – eight of them.

It turned out that Ms. Nassar’s resume was perfect for the role. In “Feathers,” she plays a long-suffering mother of three whose husband, a factory worker who seems to only talk to her when he tells her what to make for dinner, is turned into a chicken by the magician. at their son’s birthday party. The magician cannot undo his trick. He shrugs.

And there they are, clinging to their filthy, smoky apartment as debt and eviction loom: a white chicken, three little boys and an increasingly desperate woman, whose life already seemed as dreary as she could bear. to be even before her husband turned into a fowl.

The film won two major awards at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the first Egyptian feature film to win at Cannes. When “Feathers” made what could have been a triumphant comeback last fall, however, it soon ran into a new Egyptian political taboo. He had shown a side of Egypt that was poor and dreary, not the modernizing and prosperous Egypt that its president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, claims to be building. In a country where the state’s tight grip on free speech increasingly extends to its once-proud film industry, that wouldn’t work.

For now, at least, the film will remain off-screen for most Egyptians.

Several well-known actors walked out of its screening at the El Gouna Film Festival, its first in Egypt, protesting what they called an “insult to Egypt’s reputation”. News media and presenters close to the government accused the film of defaming the country, while others quietly deleted mention of its Cannes awards from their websites.

Egyptian films and books of the past have drawn national anger for depicting poverty and dysfunction, not to mention sexy scenes, gay content or what religious conservatives consider blasphemy. Yet for much of the past century, censors have overlooked portrayals of police brutality, corruption and other evils.

But since Mr el-Sisi came to power in 2013, the government has institutionalized Egypt’s thin skin, arresting opponents, stifling critical literature and making it clear to the film and TV industry that it should promote the state’s preferred narrative.

The bad guys: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political group that held power before Mr. el-Sisi. The good guys: the army, the police and the security services.

“It’s not new, this kind of reaction. It’s an old ingrained nationalism and a feeling that bad things have to be covered up,” said Ezzedine C. Fishere, an Egyptian novelist and former diplomat whose books have been adapted for Egyptian television. “What’s different this time is the regime connection. Any criticism of anything Egyptian is somehow felt by the regime as criticism of itself.

Inconveniently for naysayers of “Feathers”, parts of the film seem to have been taken directly from life in Mrs. Nassar’s village. Some Egyptian viewers who managed to watch a pirated version online felt the film was shot in Ms Nassar’s own house.

Not so. But it wasn’t much of an exaggeration either. His house in Al Barsha, a village with four churches for Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, a few mosques and the screeching donkeys that ferry farmers to the green fields that stretch down to the Nile, is built of brick, while his character is surrounded by walls. by concrete and soiled tiles. But Ms. Nassar, too, has long carried most of the household expenses.

The second eldest of six girls and two boys from a Coptic family, she was 12 when her father left to look for work in another city. She and her sister began to work in the fields, rising at dawn to harvest wheat and corn and feed the animals, returning at sunset to help their mother around the house.

She has never been to school, apart from a few literacy classes where she learned the Arabic alphabet, enough to read the names of contacts in her phone. In an interview in the small front room of her house, which contained a bed covered in a flowery blanket, a small fridge and not much else, she succinctly summed up her life. “We did everything,” she said, “and then we got older and we got married, and we finally quit working.”

She was 19 when she married a cousin. (“They’d bring the man to you and say, he’s the one you’re marrying,” she said of her courtship.) A few years later, she was a mother.

“I was happy to work in the fields, to help, but I wanted to be educated,” she said. “I want all my kids to go to school and not be like their mommy and daddy.”

It was his 19-year-old daughter Heidi who came home one day from a local acting workshop and told her mother that a director had come to town, looking to play the lead role.

Mrs. Nassar thought, why not? She first checked with her son, Mario, to make sure the hearing wouldn’t be “eib” or shameful – a concept that governs a lot of behavior in Egypt. As the head of the family in the absence of his father, whose work often took him away from home for long periods of time, Mario gave him his blessing. (Her husband too, later.)

Ms Nassar had grown up hypnotized by Egyptian films and television, wishing she could become an actress. “What is the difference between these people and me? she remembered thinking. “Is it because they are educated and I am not? »

The director, Omar el-Zohairy, cast her after just one conversation, she said, telling him he was looking for a new face. (Mr. el-Zohairy declined to be interviewed, with press representatives saying producers were hoping to avoid attracting further attention.)

Ms. Nassar’s experience may have helped. Like many women from poor families in Egypt, whose husbands migrate to other Arab countries or other parts of the country to work and send money home, Ms. Nassar takes care of the household herself. – on screen and off screen.

For years, Mrs. Nassar’s husband worked as a migrant worker in Libya. For a time, he sold clothes at a street stall in Badr City, a Cairo satellite five hours’ drive from Al Barsha. Then he found work in a shoe factory in Tanta, even further from his home, visiting his family for a few weeks every few months.

“The overlap is that I had to do everything when my husband was away,” she said of her affinity for her character. “Her too.”

Whether it’s because of the overlap – the chores she does in the film, whether bathing a child, scrubbing pots or chopping eggplant, were, after all, her day-to-day reality – or her talent, Ms. Nassar quickly won fans over for her performance. After the victories in Cannes, his son created an official Facebook page for him. Within days, he had 47,000 subscribers. Social media users praised her natural, radiant warmth, and her church held a ceremony honoring the “star”.

“Minya’s Damiana Nassar was the most beautiful and authentic at the El Gouna festival,” Khaled el-Nabawy, an actor, tweeted after the festival. “His performance in the movie ‘Feathers’ is humbling for professionals.”

But perhaps no one was more thrilled than her neighbors, who thought that finally, others might recognize their struggle.

Ms. Nassar was quick to praise Mr. el-Sissi and his “Decent Life” social initiative, under which she receives a monthly stipend of around $29. But as she and other Al Barsha residents were quick to notice, the government hadn’t fixed everything.

“They don’t see the life we ​​live,” said Mariam Sam, 23, of the film’s critics. “They’ve never been to a place like this.”

As an arthouse film, “Feathers” was never intended for commercial cinema screens in its home country, but was slated for release in December. In January, however, a production spokeswoman said there were no plans to release it in Egypt.

Nada Rashwan contributed reporting.