A Door to the Sky

06/26/2017

Morocco / 1989 / Arabic & French

Directed by Farida Benlyazid

With Zakia Tahri, Chaabia Laadraoui, Eva Saint-Paul

Still from 'A Door to the Sky'Religion has something of a double life; it is daily interactions and customs, and then it is also the mysticism behind them, those things not meant to be tested against reality. Its two faces shore each other up, protect one another from irrelevance and scrutiny. If the necessary degree of mystery wasn’t there, belief would lose its background sense of consequence, of gravity. A film that looks at Islam through the story of a French-Moroccan woman discovering her roots, A Door to the Sky muses on the utility of religion when cloven by a cultural disconnect and then sutured by good intentions for humanity.

We first see Nadia in a context familiar to anyone with dual nationality; disembarking a plane and then standing before an immigration desk. At her family home in Fez, her father is on his deathbed, and all of his children have traveled to be there. Nadia and her siblings have all, to some degree, identified as French. Coming to such a traditional place is strange for Nadia, who looks like a punk fashion model, with jeans and a tank top, and a shock of hair dyed pink. Her older sister Leyla, picking her up at the airport, reminds her she’ll have to wear a headscarf in public.

Cooped up in the seemingly infinite rooms of the house, Nadia feels the weight of memory of the place. Many of these memories aren’t hers, but come from her French mother, her Moroccan father (who now lies, failing, downstairs), and Kirana, the matron who looks after everyone and educates young girls about Islam. Looking at the vivid paintings scattered around her chambers, Nadia recalls Ba Sassi, a “master of magic” and old family friend. “When your mother died, he became your companion,” Kirana tells her. We see a flashback to her childhood, with the old man playfully proposing marriage to her. “I’ll be aging backwards,” he tells young Nadia.

Nadia’s brother has a French family. There is a readymade conflict at the dinner table about what is the proper way to eat. He insists his children use forks rather than hands. “Nadia and I chose to be French,” the brother reminds the family. But she cuts in: “I didn’t choose anything.” And she hasn’t had to make some of the important choices – French or Moroccan, atheist or Muslim, tied-down or free – that people think she should make. Perhaps these shouldn’t be choices, a door #1 and door #2, whatsoever. It’s not that she hasn’t experienced the impulsion to identify; she mentions feeling assailed in France by the people who, led by Le Pen senior, tell her to just go away. Indeed, she must feel the dissonance at every step, but has so far avoided being dragged down in one direction or the other.

After her father’s death, she has duties to meet people, but prefers to sit in the emptiness and drink alone. “I don’t want to put on a disguise,” she mutters. The women sternly encourage her to eat the funeral bread. Unlike day-to-day pleasures, the bread is what her body will remember on judgment day, they tell her.

ADoortotheSky2Her boyfriend from back in France, Jean-Philippe, flies to Fez to meet with her, but she’s grown distant and fractious. She agrees to talk to him in his hotel room. There’s a subtly disconnecting scene in there when, with the window closed, we can’t hear them talking, only the musical stew of noises rising from the city. Then, as she slides the window open, the noises dissipate and we are, sound-wise, in the room with them. “Islam doesn’t change,” she says to him, at one point. Like the city, it’s always going to be there, waiting for her.

The film falls ahead through time – her personality evolves. She isn’t its sole focus, but everyone else who appears in it feels less fleshed out than she, with all her flaws and complexity. In a letter to Jean-Philippe, she references the present, talking about how she’s slipped into non-time. The shock of transition from being aware of time to being stripped of that awareness – to settling into life in Fez, in other words – is key to her transformation. She only planned to stay for a few days, but an unseen force causes her to stay behind, and shed her Europeanness. She talks to the itinerant singer who has come to offer her services at the funeral. The woman has been abroad, but only praises her home country. Her brief appearance adds a dash of poignancy to the context of Nadia’s situation (or lack thereof), as someone who travels around doing what she loves, but is also rooted and in love with her culture.

The very walls of the mansion are spaces in themselves, which generate a world of geometry that swirls and pulses, dances and encompasses, in stasis. But with the family dissolved, the expansive house means little, underpopulated and too much for anyone to maintain. The eldest brother, Driss, who owns half the house, wants to sell it. Nadia and Leyla, combined, own the other half, and so can prevent (or at least, delay) that from happening. Nadia has ideas for extending the fortune of the family to help others, and turn it into a shelter for women. The idea comes to her when they find a battered and bruised girl from the street taking shelter on their rooftop. Nadia wants to access an impulse for women’s liberation that, according to her, has always been there.

The events that have transpired since she came to Morocco have also activated a certain revulsion with the West. At the same time her formerly cosmetic politicization helps her look at traditional life anew. It’s no longer just a part of her life that drags her backwards. She rereads Marx by way of Angela Davis, and so reconsiders religion. Meanwhile she tries to square her live-and-let-live approach to the shelter with the level of conformity that many of the women need to have to survive in society.

A mystical presence in her life, Ba Sassi visits her in dreams and waking visions. Of course, Kirana thinks this is great. He appears periodically to give suggestions, even telling Nadia about buried treasure beneath a courtyard tree. She continues to believe that everything she needs to attain enlightenment is somewhere within the walls of the sprawling mansion, either there or buried, latent or forgotten. Ba Sassi tells her to join in the trance dance in which the women engage. But she can’t, instead having visions on her own. The communal manifestation doesn’t work for her, as she hasn’t grown up among these women, and thus can’t give herself over.

Still from 'A Door to the Sky'That Nadia can be an individual, with individualized crises, is due to her privilege, and we see that contrasted with the other characters who come through her life. Many of the women are “normal” Moroccans who have to escape their violent households. In some ways they are more courageous for leaving their own life behind than someone like Nadia, who can do so at will, with only the aid of a plane ticket.

And then there are the eccentric types who wash up in the shelter. There is a mysterious woman who seems to be in an ecstatic state of delusion, of contemplation even more chaotic than what Nadia is experiencing. There’s also a tough woman named Bahia, who seems off the streets of Paris herself, and whom the other women eventually reject because of her difference. These people are each living realities that are harsher, more “real” than that of Nadia, who is able to sit among modern paintings and kiss the flowers, trying to decide on a life to follow.

Leyla has an aphorism of a line and a point: you can’t have the line without the point. Nadia has neither. She doesn’t seem to notice that, for Kirana and the other women of the household, happiness comes from community, from camaraderie. She sequesters herself among billowy curtains, letting Kirana and the other women perform the daily duties of the household. Nadia wants to make an exception to the women-only idea that she set up, and take in a mentally-ill young man. Of course this is going to cause problems, beyond the obvious fact that she wants to both heal and eventually marry him. He seems less ill than just sexually repressed, a social hurricane more than someone who needs protecting.

Kirana, always there for her with the pious truisms, tells her that “prayer brings us closer to ourselves.” Nadia tells her about why she can’t pray. She’s always interrupted by “strange thoughts.” It feels absurd to her, and she can’t engage with it. Like a spinning plate, she’s waiting for a center to be defined, to settle into a place where she’s happy. Questions of happiness and contentment are themselves going to remain elusive, especially when they are actively sought out in such a way.

ADoortotheSky7These aren’t zen koans littered throughout the film. They’re smug platitudes that people deploy for all of life’s problems. Islam doesn’t try to be a line of inquiry; it has all the answers there for you. Nonetheless the film, even at times when it seems simple, refuses to come out with things simplistically. Kirana’s talk of prayer and spirituality are an environmental background, as is the muezzin, the sunlight, the heat-dreams. Perhaps it’s a series of unthinking banalities, those which distance people from their present reality. But the same could be said of any social lubrication, religious or not. Religion is both the padding and the conductor between people. Like bricks, each person is encased in a cement that, nonetheless, connects them to one another.

This is a film full of religious doubts, religious investigation, religious awakening. And it’s all done overwhelmingly from a female perspective. Nonetheless it ends with the rather insulting suggestion that fulfillment must finally come in the form of a man. For a while Nadia is a woman doing something different, but gradually she settles into the cultural mores of Fez. Formerly-held ideas of morality and justice are left behind because they didn’t bring her any closer to understanding herself. A line from the end of the film, paraphrased, says that, while human beings may defy human understanding, there’s a greater understanding that essentially has their number. It’s destiny. Likewise, the film doesn’t profess to understand people, but is cognizant of something drawing them along, the point that forms each person’s line.

There is a long quotation from the Gulshan-i-Raz, by 14th Century Sufi poet Mahmoud Shabestari, engraved on the wall in French. It talks of being, simultaneously, “the eye that sees and thing seen.” While it’s illustrating self-awareness, it also suggests being watched over, everything seen, everything registered. The theme of destiny, as opposed to individual choice, springs up a lot in the film. The notion is that faith and tradition are things that chose the protagonist, and not vice versa. However, there are many instances int the film that suggest that Nadia is seeking out religion as a means of discovering her culture, and looking at the culture around her as a way to attain a higher state of Islam. Neither the religion nor the culture are ultimately what she had wanted them to be.

ADoortotheSky4Critics have said that the film self-orientalizes Morocco, visually and thematically. Religion is treated as mysticism, and the protagonist’s hippy-ish journey of self-discovery never seems to fully leave behind the superficial. That the film appeared at festivals overseas, but never really in its country of origin, adds traction to its detractors’ claims. However director Benlyazid, in the simplistic, allegorical-feeling episodes and rather unfocused progression she creates, is defining a complex environment for interrogating cultural identity, the individual and her religion. Parts of it, such as the end bit, trouble us, or seem to negate other pieces of wisdom, or challenge the assumptions about liberation and consciousness that we bring to it.

In some ways, that is the point: we can’t arrive at the questions it summons expecting to understand empirically, particularly in such a place of cultural convergences as Morocco. Nadia’s ethereal skimming of Islam is interrupted by the daily reality of culture, the rules and strictures that regular women have to deal with. Benlyazid arrays the mysterious elements of Sufism (and of local Moroccan customs), like the profound tessellations of the house’s interiors, to create a sense of deeper meaning in the order of things. Nadia complains that people around her only see Islam “through the narrowest door,” and opposes that, saying that it should be light, love, everything – no door at all. With little background in it, she sounds like a Sufi philosopher. But Karina brings her back down to Earth. The idea isn’t to look at Islam from myriad perspectives, but to understand that it’s always being interpreted from different angles. The texts remain the same, but different degrees of light (or darkness) flood over the pages.

Why should we be interested in Nadia’s poorly-articulated crises of faith, culture, morals? Is there value in exploring religion in a sweeping way that is at once between nationalities, and culturally-specific? How about a poor, fully Moroccan character whose story could explore subalterity in Islam? The film seems unconcerned with these questions, but after seeing it, we’re left with various paths towards addressing them. Essentially it’s a film about women who change something. It keeps the dedication to Fatima al-Fihri as background music. And if there is a continuity from al-Fihri’s founding of the world’s first university in 859 AD to Nadia’s protection of vulnerable women, it is that both used their resources to open doors and let in light, a spirituality of awareness and engagement. Perhaps the disconnect the protagonist feels with her surroundings is somehow necessary for her to make a change. (Like her, al-Fihri came from far away).

ADoortotheSky3Another thought is that A Door to the Sky is an early ripple from a wave of discourse on transcultural identity, which is increasingly visible and important in our world. As people and ideas wash back and forth between formerly separate shores, as the fences become at once more porous and more barbed, it gets tricky trying to identify identity itself, to define what it means to be a part of this culture or that one. Films that plumb the deep questions of culture have a certain currency – even if (as could be said for this one) they don’t surface with easy answers, or even necessarily surface at all. Benlyazid’s film dives in, callously, at times irresponsibly, seeking the unresolved threads of heritage and ritual, and with them tracing lines to the sky.

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