Ongoing film festival examines portrayal of urban modernization in recent Arab cinema

While many modern Arab authors have noted a certain dissonance between rural and urban life across the Middle East, the theme of complex city life in and of itself has become extremely resonant in contemporary Arab world culture. The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed sweeping demographic changes in the Arab world, marked by population growth of nearly 50 percent and a massive influx of young Arabs from the countryside into various urban centers. Ever since this huge population shift, the Arab world’s metropolises have developed unique social problems all their own; large and disorienting, often overcrowded and poorly maintained, the city in Arab society has become a seedbed of popular unrest for many of its residents, leading in some cases to Islamism.

It is partly for these reasons that Professor Christopher Stone, Williams’s Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Arab literature, decided to focus on this theme in a six-week film series titled “The City in Recent Arab Cinema.” By choosing films that all deal with growing up and urban life, Stone felt that he could show a different side of contemporary Arab culture both accessible to non-specialists and also reflective of more universal concerns. Drawing from a variety of countries, ranging from Lebanon to Morocco, Stone also hoped to give audiences a flavor of cinema throughout the Arab world.

Thursday’s film, Atef Hetata’s award-winning The Closed Doors, is an extremely provocative example of a coming-of-age story with a bustling, confusing city as its backdrop. Set in Cairo during the Gulf War, Hetata tells the story of Mohammed Hussein (Ahmed Azmi), an ambitious and highly impressionable teenager who lives alone with his mother Fatma (Sawsan Badr) in a small but cozy rooftop apartment.

As the movie opens, Mohammed is once again daydreaming, gazing through a hole in the classroom wall. As a result, he is kicked out of class indefinitely by his teacher Mr. Mansour (Mahmoud Hemeida). This event initiates Mohammed’s basic conflict, steadily developed throughout the film. Not only does being expelled complicate his prospects for the future and force him to begin thinking about other ways to move forward, but it also poses the more immediate problem of paying for alternative education; a housemaid for an overly caricatured rich couple, Fatma barely makes enough to scrape by, and her ex-husband, who left her for a younger woman, provides no financial support.

The Gulf War period was extremely difficult across the Arab world, leading to region-wide economic depression and political upheaval. This tension is a constant presence in the film and is shown to affect everyone – news reports fill the background of several scenes, a number of characters witness demonstrations and other displays of discontent with both Saddam’s regime and the U.S. – yet the focus remains on Mohammed’s world during the crisis.

Facing the obstacle of his schooling, Mohammed’s scope of vision slowly starts to widen as he begins to stay away from home: he explores the city on his own or with his new streetwise friend, Awadin, sells flowers on the highway, and takes lessons at his local mosque. Mansour – a decent man who wishes to court Mohammed’s mother – offers to teach Mohammed in private at no cost, but Mohammed’s curiosity for religion and other self-building influences has already been whetted. Gradually, faced with the disorientation of the city, the death of his one close friend, and an ongoing internal struggle between his sexuality and religious leanings, Mohammed becomes increasingly angry. He loves his mother dearly but cannot understand why she associates with her best friend Zeinab, a prostitute, or refuses to wear the veil. He wants to make money for his mother and become a self-sufficient man, yet this desire prompts him to start carrying a knife and looking for fights. By the end of the story, pulled in every direction and finding solace nowhere, Mohammed fights back against all his angst with violence, leading to the unspeakably tragic climax of the film.

One of the major strengths of Hetata’s work is its ability to effectively show so many strands of city life and culture and to capture the fundamental disorientation of a crowded and garbage-filled Cairo for an impressionable teen such as Mohammed. It is perhaps for hyper-realistic portrayal of Cairo – if not for the subtle portrayal of the Egyptian government as powerless and its schools as chaotic, or the focus on the theme of sexuality versus religion – that the film is barred from distribution in Egypt.

Hetata skillfully shows us the world as it appears to Mohammed – the claustrophobia of his home life with Fatma, the allure of street life, the beauty of the mosque. We cannot condone Mohammed’s behavior in the latter part of the movie, but we can certainly contextualize and understand it.

Hetata also displays a masterful eye for scene composition and carefully constructs the transitions between scenes. His juxtapositions of the sights and sounds of Fatma’s employer’s home with those of her own are especially incisive, driving home the theme of classism, as are those leading into the war-related scenes. Hetata also deliberately focuses the camera on material possessions; whether the camera follows Mohammed’s new shoes as he walks the streets, or locates a wad of bills alongside Awadin as he dies, it continually places concerns with the material at the forefront of his characters’ minds and his audience’s view. In the background on the street, too, is a stream of writing on the wall, mostly advertisements for employment abroad, highlighting the often divisive desire of Egyptians (and other Arabs) to escape reality by leaving their homes to look for work and sometimes to fight for other Arab nations.

The Closed Doors is a wonderfully well-done, uncompromising and perspicacious look at one teen’s coming of age in an urban milieu that seems to close in on him as his journey progresses. With the exception of the one upper-class couple, the characters are written and portrayed with sensitivity, warmth and depth, all with swirling emotions and complex motivations that haunt them daily. Concurrently, Islamism is portrayed fairly, as both a positive social force but also a potentially corrupting one. Above all, Hetata captures a moment in time that was fraught with turmoil and disorientation in the Arab world, and demonstrates simultaneously the universality of themes of love and oppression, social stratification, sexuality and religion, giving his audience a frightfully accurate portrayal of one young man’s bitter struggle to carve out a niche for himself in an ostensibly unwelcoming society.