San Francisco International Film Festival Presents Selections from Arab Cinema

By Kim Jensen

The Closed Doors

Written and  directed by Atef Hetata, Egypt, 1999.

Produced and distributed by Misr International Films (Youssef Chahine & Co.)

BY KIM JENSEN

After having worked as an assistant for several years with various directors including Youssef Chahine and Spike Lee, and after having made three short films, Atef Hetata finally had the opportunity to direct his first feature film. The result, “The Closed Doors,” has already won numerous international prizes, including first prize in the Bahrain Film Festival and the Grand Prix in Montpellier, France. Screened recently at the San Francisco International Film Festival, “The Closed Doors,” is an exceptional film from the Arab world, well-written, subtle and engaging.

Set in the poorest neighborhoods of Cairo during the period of the Gulf War, “The Closed Doors” tells the coming-of-age tale of an endearing young adolescent, Mohammed, also known as ‘Hamada.’ He and his hard-working mother, Fatma, live in poverty in a tiny “informal” apartment on a roof. The boy’s father has deserted them for a younger wife; and Mohammed’s brother has been sent to Iraq, never to be seen again. Meanwhile the Gulf War has exacerbated an economic and moral crisis in Egypt, making life even more difficult for the family of two. Faced with a life of poverty, a repressive atmosphere at school, and a turbulent sexual awakening, Mohammed begins to turn to Islamic fundamentalism as a solution for his many dilemmas.

At school, Hamada is failing and receives regular beatings, yet the mosque tutors him in Arabic in a tranquil environment. When Hamada’s mother is fired from her degrading job as a maid, the Mosque is able to help them financially. And as Mohammed’s body and mind are anguished by irrepressible sexual urges, the Sheik — Sheik Khalid — attempts (unsuccessfully) to channel the boy’s lust into a ‘legitimate’ yearning for ‘the hereafter.’ All of this seems attractive enough on the surface, but trouble ensues when Sheik Khalid begins to encourage Hamada to control his mother Fatma’s life.

The film’s tension rises when the Fatma engages in a friendship with Mohammed’s high school teacher. Mohammed, becoming more and more irrational under the influence of fundamentalist ideas,  begins to worry obsessively about his mother’s ‘honor.’ All around him doors are slamming, (doors of rationality, of economic hope, of a resolution for his sexual anxieties) and the only open door for Mohammed seems to be that of extremism. When Sheik Khalid continues to press him to protect his mother’s honor (“don’t let her work,” “keep her inside the house,” “make sure she covers her head,” “let one of us marry her…”) the film moves steadily toward a tragic resolution of all of the conflicts.

Serious though the resolution may be, “The Closed Doors” is filled with the heart breaking and often humorous details of working class life and of an Arab boy’s adolescence; and these details give the film a memorable humane quality —without a trace of the obsequious, Western-approval-seeking tone of many European co-productions. In this, it resembles the better aspects of Iranian cinema where the viewer is drawn into a heightened feeling of compassion —without moral condescension. Hetata has created such eminently likeable and believable characters that we can’t help but be moved by their story.

Adhering to a style that might be called ‘social realism,’ with all the merits and artistic limitations that this genre implies, “The Closed Doors” offers a lucid depiction of the very pressing economic and social conditions in the “informal” neighborhoods of Cairo. But whereas social realism is often characterized by a blunt and relentless quality, this story is told with a sensitivity verging on nostalgia. Hetata, who wrote the script himself,  skillfully weaves  the social commentaries into the fabric of the plot, so that the political dimension never becomes overbearing or polemical.

One of the strongest aspects of this film is the acting and writing which are two sides of the same coin; one is impossible without the other. There are admirable performances by the whole cast, most notably by  Sawsan Badr who plays Fatma, Mohammed’s mother. A well-known Egyptian theater actress,  Badr delivers a very convincing interpretation of the strong, beautiful mother.  Manal Afifi, the actress who plays their neighbor Zeinab, an easy going prostitute who tries to calm Mohammed’s sexual anxieties, is also excellent. Ahmed Azmi, the handsome young actor who plays Mohammed is a probable candidate for a long career in the Egyptian cinema.  All of this fine acting is made possible by a well-executed script, one which allows the actors to become recognizable representations of  real people. And it is in this veryrealness that the film becomes political — the viewer is made aware that much is at stake here — this is not mere ‘entertainment.’

Naturally “The Closed Doors” has its weaknesses, and the main one is that it tends to drag in the middle and could easily have gone through another round of serious editing. Another issue is the half-explored theme of the Gulf War. While the War is constantly mentioned and referenced — on the news, radio, in discussions, etc. — the film maintains an inexplicable ambivalence toward it. It seems to want to say something, and yet fails at every turn to make a resounding point. It can’t be that Hetata is disinclined toward making political statements, since the film presents obvious socialist, feminist, and anti-Islamic arguments. The only reason for this particular lapse can be that Hetata isn’t exactly sure what he wants to say; and this adds up to an aesthetic and, in my opinion, a political downfall.

The theme of the war and its unmentioned bitter consequences, while certainly not necessary for a successful film about Egyptian adolescence, becomes an irksome unanswered question for a conscious viewer.

 “The Closed Doors,” however, can’t have made a stronger statement about religious orthodoxy. By the end of the film we have a strong condemnation of Islamic Fundamentalism as a hypocritical social movement which lacks subtlety, and which prefers coercion to an open discussion of sexuality and social issues. It is likely that Arabs living in the West will privately critique this work as being reductive, contributing to an anti-Muslim, anti-Arab climate. And “The Closed Doors” will undoubtedly create a loud, and hopefully meaningful, discussion when it is released in Egypt this fall. But I would argue that this film has nothing in common with the stereotypical portrayals that lead to racist misperceptions about Arabs and Muslims. Instead it offers a thoroughly indigenous, nuanced portrayal of a likeable young dreamer who is misled down an ever more confusing and ever more treacherous path.

 

This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol.6, no. 31, Spring 2000)
Copyright (c) 2000 by Al Jadid


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