Chahine, Youssef (1926–)

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Chahine, Youssef

Youssef Chahine (Yusuf, Yusif Shahin) is a prominent Egyptian filmmaker, producer, actor, and screenwriter. His films touch on deep social problems of the society in which he lived, raising considerable controversy at different times. Youssef Chahine won the Grand Prix of the Carthage Film Festival (1970), the Special Jury Prize of the Berlin Film Festival (1979), and the Prix de Cinquatieme of the Cannes Film Festival (1997). Chahine is credited with discovering the talent of Omar Sharif, a famous film actor, who started his career by starring in Chahine's film Sira fi'l-Wadi (Struggle in the Valley/Blazing Sky [or Sun in a different interpretation]) in 1954.


Chahine was born on 25 January 1926 in Alexandria, Egypt. Born into a Christian family of a Lebanese father, who was a prominent lawyer, and Greek mother, Chahine began his education in friar's school. His father hoped to secure his son's success by first sending him to the Catholic primary school and then a boarding school in England. Upon finishing his studies in prestigious Victoria College, Chahine entered Alexandria University to study engineering. After one year, Chahine managed to persuade his family to send him to the Pasadena Playhouse to study acting. There Chahine became acquainted with Robert Preston and Victor Jory.

After graduating in 1948, Chahine returned to Egypt where he started an apprenticeship with the Italian documentary filmmaker Gianni Verniccio. While working with Verniccio, he also met the cameraman Alvisi Orfanelli, who introduced Chahine to film production.

In 1950 Chahine shot his first film Baba Amin (Papa Amin). It was a drama about a middle-class pensioner and was inspired by his own father's life. In 1951 Chahine made the film Nile Boy, which earned him an invitation to the Cannes Festival. Nile Boy was about the life and problems of Egyptian peasants.

Chahine made a film in 1954 that introduced Omar Sharif as an actor. The film Sira fi'l-Wadi was about the life of Egyptian peasants and their difficult relations with the landowners. Sharif played the role of Ahmad, the son of an estate manager, who is working for Amal, a rich landowner. Amal, who had paid for Ahmed's education in agriculture, felt betrayed, after Ahmad decided to spread the education among peasants. The film's plot was based on the conflict between the rich landowner and Ahmad's family, who try to fend itself from the nasty plots of the rich landowner's son. In 1956 Chahine made another film Sira fi'l-Mina (Dark Waters), which was another similar attempt to tackle the social problems of the Egyptian society.

Youssef Chahine attracted international attention in 1958 by filming Bab al-Hadid (Cairo Station or Cairo Main Station), a film in which he starred. Chahine played the role of Kinawi, a crippled newspaper seller, who is hopelessly in love with the beautiful but indifferent Hanuma, who is a lemonade seller in the same station. Swept away by his obsession, Kinawi kidnaps the object of his passion, which results in tragic consequences. Chahine's film brought into the light the issues of sexuality and repression, obsession and violence among the marginalized part of the Egyptian society. Bab al-Hadid received much attention at the Berlin Film Festival and raised much controversy in Egypt. As a result of the controversy, the film was a box-office failure in Egypt.

Also in 1958, Chahine produced another film, bold and full of controversy and political statements: Jamila Buhrayd (Jamila the Algerian). The film depicted the problems of an Algerian woman who had to pass through violence and deprivations during the resistance movement of Algeria against the French occupation. The film introduced a different point of view from the traditional attitude toward a woman and her role in society.

In 1961, because of the illness of filmmaker Ezzedine Zulfigar, who was intended to shoot a film on Saladin, the epic Muslim ruler who fought the Crusaders, Chahine was invited by the government to make the film. The film Saladin was produced in 1962. Chahine added his own views to the twelfth-century ruler's story, emphasizing tolerance toward other religions. The primary purpose of the film was to echo the contemporary efforts of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser to unite the Arab countries against foreign influence. After having defeated Richard the Lionhearted, Saladin pledges that Arab Jerusalem would be open to the pilgrims of all religions. The film was successful as the greatest historic epic of the Egyptian cinema. Chahine himself played one of the main roles in this film.

During the several following years Chahine found himself increasingly in conflict with the government-backed film industry of Egypt and its heavy political restrictions in filmmaking. In 1964 he voluntarily went into exile to Lebanon, where he shot two musicals: Bayya al-Khawatim (1965, Ring Seller) and Rim al-Dhahab (1967, Sands of Gold). Ring Seller became one of the best musicals of Arab cinema, bringing success to Youssef Chahine, whereas Sands of Gold, due to delays in shooting and its box-office failure, forced him to quite his work in Lebanon and return to Egypt.

In Egypt Chahine shot his first joint Soviet-Egyptian film called al-Nas fil-Nil (People of the Nile or People and the Nile). The film was about the Aswan Dam and Chahine used the plot of the film to uncover the problems of the contemporary Arab society, featuring the rural Egypt and the issues surrounding the idea of building the huge dam over the Nile. The film was ready in 1968. Neither the Soviet nor the Egyptian governments were satisfied with the ideological taking of the film, and al-Nas fil-Nil showed up in cinemas only in 1972.

In 1969 Chahine directed al-Ard (The Land or The Earth), featuring rural Egypt of the 1930s and the competing interests over controlling the land, which drew parallels with contemporary Egypt. The Sadat government of Egypt banned the film. However, Chahine was awarded the Grand Prix (Tanit d'Or) of the Carthage Film Festival for this work in 1970.


Name: Youssef Chahine (Yusuf, Yusif Shahin)

Birth: 1926, Alexandria, Egypt

Nationality: Egyptian

Education: Victoria College (U.K.), Alexandria University (Egypt), and Pasadena Playhouse (U.S.)


  • 1948: Returns to Egypt from the United States, begins a professional career in filmmaking
  • 1950: Debuts film Baba Amin
  • 1951: Invited to Cannes Film Festival for Nile Boy
  • 1954: Introduces Omar Sharif in Sira fi'l-Wadi (Struggle in the Valley/Blazing Sky)
  • 1958: Earns reputation as strong filmmaker in Egypt and beyond with Bab al-Hadid (Cairo Station)
  • 1964: Voluntarily exiles himself to Lebanon due to conflicts with the government-backed film industry
  • 1968: Returns to Egypt, directs first Soviet-Egypt coproduction al-Nas fil-Nil (People of the Nile or People and the Nile)
  • 1970: Earns Grand Prix of the Carthage Film Festival
  • 1973: Forms his own production Misr International Productions; Directs al-Usfur (The Sparrow)
  • 1976: Suffers heart attack after the box-office failure of Awdat al-ibn al-dhal (Return of the Prodigal Son), has open heart surgery in London
  • 1978: Directs an autobiographic film Iskandariyya … Leih? (Alexandria … Why?)
  • 1979: Awarded the Special Jury Prize (Silver Bear) at the Berlin Film Festival for Alexandria … Why?
  • 1985: Writes and directs Adieu Bonaparte about Napoléon's Egypt campaign
  • 1994: Writes and directs Emigrant about the life of prophet Joseph, based on biblical motives
  • 1996: The Locarno Film Festival holds a thirteen-day retrospective of all Chahine films
  • 1997: Awarded the Prix de Cinquatieme at the Cannes Film Festival
  • 1999: Screens al-Akhar (The Other) at the New York Film Festival
  • 2001: Screens Silence … We Are Rolling at the New York Film Festival

Chahine in 1973 directed the film al-Usfur (The Sparrow) about the 1967 War. The film, which blamed the failure of the war on the internal problems of the Egyptian society, was also banned by the Egyptian government.

In 1976 he released the film Awdat al-ibn al-dhal (Return of the Prodigal Son). This film was the first Algerian-Egyptian joint film and symbolized the changes in Arab society. According to the film, the Arab activist Ali is arrested, and while he was suffering in jail his brother was tyrannizing his family. The family eagerly awaits the return of Ali, their only hope against the tyranny of his brother. Nobody recognizes Ali when he finally returns to a big party at his house after long sufferings, and to everybody's surprise shortly after his return he sides with the tyranny of his brother. After the box-office failure of this new film, Chahine suffered a heart attack and had open heart surgery in London.

In 1978 Chahine directed an autobiographic film, Iskandariyya … Leih? (Alexandria … Why?). The plot takes place during the struggle between German and British military forces in Egypt during World War II. A young Arab student, Yahya, who is Chahine's avatar in this case, falls in love with another man, a British soldier. Yahya loves William Shakespeare and dreams of studying filmmaking. The division between his world and the West, as well as his sexual awakening, forces him to seriously reevaluate his identity and allegiances. The film won the 1979 Silver Bear prize in the Berlin Film Festival. The themes tackled in this film, including the homosexual relations depicted, were regarded as highly controversial in Egypt. Chahine turned this film into a biographical quartet, continuing the film with An Egyptian Story (1982), Alexandria, Again and Again (1990), and Alexandria … New York (2004).

Chahine presented the film al-Muhajir (Emigrant) in 1994, prepared on the biblical story of the prophet Joseph. The mere fact that a religious figure was depicted in the film created a controversy in Egypt.

In 1997 Chahine directed the film al-Masir (Destiny), in which he attacked the fundamentalism in Islam by describing the problems of the twelfth-century philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who called for studying the teachings of the classic Greek philosophers and was opposed by the orthodoxy of his time. The same year he received the lifetime award of the Cannes Film Festival (Prix de Cinquatieme). This topic of radical religious orthodoxy and its impact on the society was further developed in his film al-Akhar (1999, The Other).

Chahine has directed over forty films and has served as a member of the jury in a number of film festivals (Cannes, Berlin, and Geneva).


Chahine was deeply influenced by the fundamental political processes going on in Arab countries—the process of establishment of independent countries in the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli wars, and the domestic political struggles over the political systems in these countries, including the confrontation between the conservative traditionalism and the modern political, and civic values and the East-West divide in the Arab communities. Many of his films were marked by the huge controversies they caused in Egypt, and some of his films were banned in his home country for the same reason.

Unlike many film directors in Egypt who operated within the confines of local tradition and political restraints, Chahine used his films as an art of self-expression, which recognized no restrictions or boundaries. This brought his films into numerous conflicts with local tradition (Cairo Station and Jamila the Algerian in 1958, Dawn of a New Day in 1964, Return of the Prodigal Son in 1976, Alexandria … Why? in 1978, Emigrant in 1994 and the Destiny in 1997), as well as the government policies (People and the Nile in 1968, The Land in 1969, the Sparrow in 1973).

Chahine seemed to have his own independent view on the social and political processes going around him and his country, and in some of his films one could see an ambition to use cinema as a tool of change in society.


Egyptian director Youssef Chahine single-handedly disproves the stereotypes of political film. He triumphs over all the disadvantages, and uses none of the alibis, of Third World cinema while showing that a director can make personal films on controversial subjects and still reach large audiences.



Chahine gained international recognition for the consistently high standards he maintained in his films, and his courage to stand up for his ideas even when his views represented the minority in his society. The awards that he received in the Carthage (1970) and Berlin (1979) film festivals, and the demonstration of a thirteen-day retrospective of all Chahine films at the Locarno Film Festival, all coincided with the period when Chahine was under ideological attacks at home for the controversies his films were creating in Egypt.


Chahine's opposition to the marginalization and violence in traditional societies (depicted in the movies Cairo Station, The Land), propagation of religious tolerance and opposition to religious hostilities (Saladin), opposition to the usage of extreme religious ideology as a political tool (Emigrant, Destiny, The Other), and many other values of tolerance, peace, and love, resonating with Western liberal ideas earned him much respect among the international audience.


Chahine, Youssef. Destiny. Paris: France2Cinema, 1997.

Chahine, Youssef, and Joseph Massad. "Art and Politics in the Cinema of Youssef Chahine." Journal of Palestine Studies 28, no. 2 (Winter 1999): 77-93.

Cousins, Mark. The Story of Film. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004.

Dupont, Joan, "Reason and Revelation: The 'Destiny of Youssef Chahine.'" International Herald Tribune (17 October 1997).

Fawal, Ibrahim. Youssef Chahine. London: British Film Institute, 2001.

                                              Adil M. Asgarov