INTERVIEW WITH ATEF HETATA
"The best way to avoid fundamentalism is to remain as open as possible."
What led you to take on the subject of fundamentalism?
I wanted to make a film about adolescence, and to set it in Cairo because that is a city that I know. The star system in Egyptian cinema is such that it has hardly treated this subject. I also wanted to tackle the political and economic influence of the Gulf War, another subject that the Egyptian cinema has rarely taken on.
Your film shows to what point the Islamists are in synch with societal difficulties.
I could not avoid this subject while speaking of adolescence. It's not I who has chosen this subject: it's the subject that has imposed itself on me. If this only had to do with a group of madmen raving about whatever, it wouldn't be dangerous. Fundamentalists have answers to offer for questions about identity, even if they're not good ones! They happen to have a vision of justice at the political and social level--and that's really the danger. That's why I didn't want to stereotype them.
So fundamentalism imposed itself as a subject.
Yes. In Egypt during the early 90s, a certain fascism affected all levels of thinking. I couldn't ignore it if I wanted to speak about this period.
Your film is the result of an anguished inquiry, that of trying to understand how young people could be seduced by fundamentalism. It even seems to say that it does no good to try to silence the fundamentalists without resolving the factors that led to their emergence.
I definitely believe that the best way to avoid fundamentalism is to be as open as possible and to resolve the fundamental problems of our society. Freedom of speech is not the least of these. Corruption and economic issues also. The problem is that the fundamentalists are not open-minded either!
The adolescent in the film lives with his divorced mother. Is the absence of the father a feature of contemporary Arab society?
I chose the physical absence of the father in the film for story reasons, but the father can also be absent even when present. It's undoubtedly true all over the world: the lessons and values passed down by fathers doesn't correspond to the needs and expectations of their sons.
The mother is extremely nonplussed in your film. She is reassured to see her son go to the mosque out of fear of seeing him sink into delinquency.
She is in fact an ambiguous character who embodies one of the film's paradoxes: she is both conscious and under the influence. She doesn't realize how that can turn itself against her.
It is this complexity that makes these characters believable, whereas Egyptian cinema in general tends to stereotype characters a great deal.
It was precisely to get away from this tendency that made me want to make this film.
The authoritarian nature of school is quite striking in the film.
Certainly, but it's not exaggerated: the violence there continues to be very much present.
The sexual awakening of the adolescent has no way of expressing itself. Does that seem to you to be a determining factor in his process of becoming an extremist?
Yes. Adolescence is the age where things are lived the most inwardly. The fundamentalists build on this repression.
You made a conscious choice to set the film during the Gulf War period.
The war gave added credibility to the fundamentalists, since their position was closer to the anti-American and anti-Western sentiments of the population, as opposed to the position of Arab governments. In addition, the war meant the return of many émigrés who had been working in the Gulf countries, which led to a greater opening up of Egypt to capitalism, with the consequent social polarization between rich and poor. It is a very powerful and self-contradictory period, onewhich the cinema has tackled very little.
The economy plays an equally great role in the film: unemployment, lack of opportunity, lack of money.
Yes, the mother, who loses her job, has a difficult time finding another. Even the prostitute can no longer practice her trade as a result of the moral code imposed by the fundamentalists!
The subject of corruption is taken on to a lesser extent.
It is perceptible via the obligatory private lessons needed to succeed at school, but it is less of a subject in the film.
The closed doors are thus all the doors that need to be opened for the freeing up of society.
Yes, but I don't want to limit that to Egyptian society.
Your film is co-produced by Misr Films. One speaks often of "The Chahine Stable" . . . Can we speak of a "school"? [reference is to the venerable and prolific Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, Egypt's greatest filmmaker]
Each of us has his own individuality, but we do share a certain way of looking at film and a way of working that brings us together. It's up to you to say if a common style emerges from that!
Does that trap you in an image?
In Egypt perhaps, because Chahine's film's are criticized for being too intellectual, but that has changed since his last films have had great success.
Will your film be shown in Egypt?
It comes out in October, as in France.
Has your film already been shown in festivals?
Venice, Thessalonica, Montpellier, San Francisco, the Paris Biannale of Arab Cinema
You've directed three short films.
The first, Salut Barbès, was made during an internship at FEMIS, in the Parisian neighborhood where Arabs live! The second, Violin, describes how an artist changes his work in music as he becomes a fundamentalist. The third, Bride of the Nile, denounces the way that marriage can be the object of a financial arrangement between families with no respect for the wishes of the young people.
What is it that pushed you to filmmaking?
My skipping school! I used to go to the movies. I never went to film school, but I learned from shooting lots of film.
This interview,conducted by Olivier Barlet in Paris, originally appeared in Africultures, (http://www.africultures.com/revue_africultures/articles/affiche_article.asp?no=1603)
Translated from the French by Michael Dembrow
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