THE CLOSED DOORS/ AL ABWAB AL MOGHLAKA (1999, Egypt, 110 min.), directed by Atef Hetata; screenplay by Atef Hetata; cinematography by Samir Bahzan; with Ahmed Azmi (Mohammed/"Hamadi"), Sawsan Badr (Fatma), Mahmoud Hemeida (Teacher Mansour), Manal Afifi (Zeinab). In Arabic with English subtitles.
Mohammed (known affectionately among intimates by his nickname "Hamáda") is a good kid, a decent young man of 18 or so. He's got it tough: he lives in a tiny rooftop apartment with his mother, Fatma, who left her creep of a husband when he decided to take a second, much younger wife. The father has nothing to offer Hamada but indifference and empty platitudes. The mother must work as a maid to support them. She refuses to allow her son to quit school to earn money, despite the self-serving urgings of the boy's father, who had earlier arranged to have their elder son, Salah, quit school and leave for work in Iraq. We learn that Salah was subsequently conscripted into the Iraqi army during the Iraq-Iran war and was never heard from again. Fatma will not allow that to happen again. She is pushing her son to rise above their station in life by going to university and becoming a professional. She is committed to keeping him on track and opening the doors necessary to make that happen.
A senior in high school, Hamada is a good student, but an underappreciated one. School is as indifferent to him as is his father: classes are huge, the teachers hardly know their names, beatings and tongue-lashings are the norm. Hamada is starting to feel the powerful urges of nascent sexuality, and he has no one that he can really talk to about his feelings. He has no friends at school (where he is mocked for having no father at home), and he obviously cannot talk to his mother about such things. His feelings for his mother are actually quite complex--he is deeply attached to her, protective of her, and proud of her, but he also chafes under the pressure of her expectations, resents her having to work to support him, wants to be seen as a man and not a boy, is embarrassed when she touches him in public. Living in such close proximity to a woman (who is moreover deeply beautiful) is also a challenge, for it arouses in him complex, confusing feelings. He is, in short, caught in that problematical region of male adolescence, bouncing back and forth between wanting to be a child and wanting to be a man. It is in many ways a familiar, universal situation.
Young men in such confusing situations can easily find themselves vulnerable to strong outside influences, particularly to such "total" systems as gangs, cults, and fascist organizations. In this film, the attraction is to religious fundamentalism. As the film opens, Hamada is observant ("pious"), but not extraordinarily so. However, a chain of events will lead him into the arms of an extreme religious sect led by a certain Sheik Azziz. Punishment from his harsh teacher, Mansour, leads to his being befriended by Hassan, a kindly teacher who is also a fundamentalist disciple of a bearded imam, Sheik Khaled, who is in turn a disciple of Sheik Azziz. Offering the young man kindness, understanding, esteem, and clear certainties, these religious figures will gradually wean him away from the influence of his devoted mother. Sheik Khaled is gentle, soft-spoken, in many ways an ideal father-figure for the boy; Hamada will find him difficult to resist.
At the same time, Hamada is being drawn away from his mother by more secular influences. He befriends a young dropout, a street hustler named Awadine. Awadine gets him to skip school and join him at the cinema, cafés, and working as a street vendor. He offers a vision of freedom and friendship that Hamada finds exciting, but also a little frightening. He jumps back and forth between the street and the mosque. His mother, anxious that Awadine is leading her son away from education and into a life of petty crime, would rather Hamada go to the mosque. As events turn out, she needn't worry; the choice will be out of her hands. She will come to regret her earlier preference.
Fatma is a powerful presence in this film, an attractive woman in many senses. She is more than just a doting mother, more than any single role that she inhabits. Married and abandoned at a young age, prey to the unwanted attentions of men around her, she has learned not to trust any man, yet she has not completely given up on the possibility of finding love. She represents an open-mindedness that is obviously very important in this film, very different from the dogmatism that Hamada is receiving at the mosque. She clearly disapproves of the life that her neighbor Zeinab is leading (Zeinab supports herself and her unemployed husband by secretly walking the streets), yet she appreciates her and enjoys her company. (Hamada, on the other hand, has a very difficult time with Zeinab --he bounces back and forth between sexual attraction and fearful disdain, unlike his steady, kindly mother). "Who are we to judge them?" Fatma asks her son when speaking of the materialistic, secular people whose home she cleans and whose capricious ill-treatment she endures for the sake of her son. Highly sympathetic, she is also a tragic figure--we wish so much better for her than she receives.
While telling a story that has wide application, The Closed Doors is also very much rooted in its time and place--Egypt in 1990. The televisions that always seem to be playing in the background remind us of Saddam's invasion of Kuweit, and Egypt's siding with the Americans. This inner division within the Arab world reflects the other tensions and divisions within Egyptian society. The war will bring American/Western troops into the Middle East. Western culture (e.g., Kentucky Fried Chicken, music, whiskey, Bruce Lee movies, and new economic opportunity) is also making its entry. These phenomena will alienate the impoverished classes from the upper classes and from their government, and will help fuel the rising flames of fundamentalism.
Here we have a film about doors that are potentially opening for a young man (through education and the ability to make the choices of an adult male), for his mother (through her son's success, through the possibility of love and productive work), and for his country. But every movement towards openness will generate powerful counter-forces that will effectively keep those doors firmly closed.
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Atef Hetata is an extremely promising young Egyptian director. He was born on December 10, 1965 in New York. At the age of eighteen he won the Cairo University Literary prize for a collection of short stories. Four years later (1988) he graduated from the Faculty of Engineering (Department of Communications) with honors. During the years 1989 to 1993, he worked as an assistant director for a number of filmmakers, including the great Youssef Chahine (whose films The Land and Destiny have shown in earlier Festivals). He also worked on Spike Lee's Malcom X. He has written and directed three short films: Salut Barbès (Paris 1989), Violin (Cairo 1990), and The Bride of the Nile (Cairo 1993). The last two films earned him a number of international awards, including Best Fiction Film at the Bilboa Film Festival and the Grand Prix du Jury at the Montpellier Film Festival and. His prize money from Montpellier enabled him to begin work on The Closed Doors, and Youssef Chahine also provided financial support (not surprising, given Chahine's strong anti-fundamentalist perspective). The Closed Doors has gone on to win a number of awards at film festivals, including Venice, Cannes, Alexandria, Carthage, and the Biannale of Arab Film in Paris.
Hetata's decision to make a film like The Closed Doors should come as no surprise, given his background and upbringing. His mother is the Egyptian doctor, women's rights activist, and celebrated novelist Nawal El-Saadawi; his father is Sherif Hetata, also a medical doctor, novelist, and civil rights activist. Both his parents have been placed on fundamentalist death lists. Though tireless advocates for freedom and openness, they are by no means apologists for the West. Atef Hetata's parents served on the Commission of Inquiry for the International War Crimes Tribunal, which investigated U.S. war crimes against Iraq during the Gulf War and issued a very critical report. Knowing that, adds another dimension to this film.
--Notes by Michael Dembrow
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