Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine (born 1926) is one of Arab cinema's most distinguished figures. His lengthy career, which stretches back to the early 1950s, contains several highlights, among them Central Station and an autobiographical trilogy that is a paean to his birthplace, the ancient port of Alexandria.
A lengthy essay on his career in Film Comment compared Chahine to some of the art's greatest visionaries, with writer Dave Kehr finding "a body of work as full and satisfying as that of any Hollywood auteur—and just as embroiled in the struggle with genre demands, commercial requirements, and imposing star personalities. Like many of his American studio counterparts, Chahine seemed to thrive on his interaction with the system, tackling an impossibly wide range of genre assignments and managing to impose his unmistakable signature on each one."
Later in his career, Chahine's sometimes politically controversial films began to run afoul of Islamic fundamentalist elements in Egypt, while elsewhere his works have been criticized for what is perceived as an unduly anti-American tone in them. Yet the critic Michael Fargeon, writing in the UNESCO Courier, termed Chahine's body of work an impressive one for a filmmaker of any nationality. "Drama, emotional intensity and humanism are the leitmotiv of his films. As a man Chahine has championed the cause of democratic and progressive intellectuals against the currents of fundamentalism and conservatism."
Idyllic Childhood Marred by Tragedy
The Alexandria where Chahine was born on January 25, 1926, was a vibrant and cosmopolitan city at the time. His family background reflected this: his attorney father was of Lebanese heritage, while his mother was Greek. At home, as in the rest of Alexandria, some five languages were spoken, but the director has often joked that as with other Alexandrines, the Chahines failed to master any of them very well. Both Alexandria and Egypt's other main city, Cairo, would later feature prominently in his films. "The introvert is often associated with Cairo," noted Film Comment, "with its narrow streets and cramped dwellings—while the extrovert is associated with Alexandria. . . . [which] remains the golden city of Chahine's work, a cosmopolitan Utopia where Europe and Africa peacefully coexist, where Christians (Chahine's family was Roman Catholic), Jews, and Muslims could once live together, providing a model for a now lost Middle Eastern harmony. The image of the port, open to the world, becomes an image of acceptance and synthesis."
The Chahines were a middle-class family, and Chahine was educated at private schools, including the elite Victoria College, Alexandria's English-language institute. He was fascinated by theater and the performing arts at an early age, and even began to stage shows at home. Tragedy struck when he was nine years old, however. "I had made a creche, with candles, and the paper caught fire," he recalled in an interview with Joan Dupont of the International Herald Tribune. "I lied and said my older brother had done it. A week later, my brother was dead of pneumonia."
Spent Two Years in Los Angeles
In his teens, Chahine spent a year at Alexandria University, and then convinced his parents to let him travel to Hollywood in order to study acting. He spent the years between 1946 and 1948 at the Pasadena Playhouse outside Los Angeles, California. When he returned, he found apprentice work with an Italian documentary filmmaker, Gianni Vernuccio, and found another Italian mentor in Alvisi Orfanelli, an influential figure in Egypt's cinema history. The film industry in Chahine's country had a successful and storied past by the time he began working in it. Since the 1930s Cairo had been known as the Hollywood of the Middle East, and its studios annually produced scores of films that were seen in theaters throughout the Arab world. It was this tradition that Chahine entered when he made his first film, Baba Amine (Father Amine), in 1950. His next one, Ibn el Nil (The Nile's Son), he took to the 1951 Venice Film Festival, where a sudden storm caused festival-goers to flee to his showing in droves—some in their bathing suits still—and the fortuitous timing served to launch his career in earnest.
Chahine made three more films before casting an unknown actor, Omar Sharif, in 1953's Sera'a fil Wadi (Struggle in the Valley). In 1958, his reputation as one of the Arab world's most exciting new filmmakers was sealed with the release of Bab el Hadid (Central Station). He took the lead role for himself, as Kennawi, a lowly newspaper vendor at the train station whose love for Hanouma, a co-worker, drives him to murder. His stories, he believed, were common to any place and time. "[I]nspiration," he told Fargeon in the UNESCO Courier article, "that can be found by observing people—with a sympathetic eye. If you love other people, every story is interesting. Everybody has a magnificent story somewhere inside them. The important thing is to know how to listen to the story and then to tell it."
Chahine's works sometimes cast a critical eye on contemporary Egyptian society. In 1964's Fajr Yum Jadid (Dawn of a New Day), "Chahine leads off with a lengthy, largely plotless sequence set in the depths of night, at a charity ball that powerfully suggests the decadent society gatherings of Michelangelo Antonioni," noted Kehr in Film Comment, while ". . . the sad frolics of Cairo's upper classes are witnessed by a chorus of orphans, the ostensible beneficiaries of the evening[.]" Though these and other films of his had a wide audience in the Arab world, they were virtually unknown in the West until a renowned French writer, Jean-Louis Bory, began organizing Chahine screenings in Paris. "It was a way of paying tribute to the work being done in a country like Egypt, whose cinema was usually regarded with condescension rather than admiration," Chahine remembered about this era in the interview with Fargeon for the UNESCO Courier. "Many people in Europe thought that all we could do was make light comedies—with belly dancing scenes, obviously—though some of us were working hard and making more worthwhile films, often on shoestring budgets."
Began Autobiographical Series
In the mid-1970s, Chahine suffered a heart attack, which forced him to retreat from what had been an arduous work schedule; he used the time to reexamine his career. When he returned, it was with the first in his acclaimed autobiographical trilogy, Iskindria . . . Leh? (Alexandria . . . Why?), in 1978, which won the special jury prize at the Berlin Film Festival that year. The film is set during World War II and what would have been his sixteenth year, when Alexandria was still the province of British colonial authorities. According to an essay in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Chahine's "film is peopled with English soldiers and Egyptian patriots, aristocrats, and struggling bourgeoises, the enthusiastic young and their disillusioned or corrupt elders. . . . His technique of intercutting the action with scenes from Hollywood musicals and newsreel footage from the Imperial War Museum in London is as successful as it is audacious, and the transitions of mood are brilliantly handled."
Some of the charges of anti-Americanism in Chahine's films stem from scenes like one in Alexandria . . . Why?, in which a young Egyptian filmmaking hopeful, excitedly nearing New York City harbor on board a ship, sees the Statue of Liberty—but then the camera pulls back to reveal a film-within-a-film, and the mighty symbol is actually a slatternly actress costumed as the Statue, with garish makeup and a salacious grin. She is beckoning not the young Egyptian man, but rather a group of Hasidic Jews from Europe.
Chahine's autobiographical saga continued with Hadota Misreya (An Egyptian Story) in 1982, which borrows heavily from Bob Fosse's All That Jazz in its dreamlike flashback sequences set during the midst of a middle-aged lothario's heart operation. This, too, won a Berlin Film Festival prize. The third and final installment in his trilogy was Iskindiriah Kaman Oue Kaman (Alexandria Again and Forever), which was released in 1990.
Chahine had written the screenplays for his most outstanding works, and in the early 1990s began delving into themes touching upon more inflammatory topics in his writing. Al-Mohager (The Emigrant) from 1994 is one such film, which he co-wrote with Rafiq As-Sabban. The project was loosely inspired by the biblical story of the prophet Joseph, and was a hit in Egypt for several weeks before a court ordered it pulled from theaters. "A fundamentalist group sued me and managed to convince the court that the film was blasphemous," Chahine told Fargeon, the UNESCO Courier journalist. "I had spent two years working on it and was very upset by the court's decision, which I considered unacceptable and repellent. The greatest humiliation for an artist is to feel gagged. I don't make films to hide them away."
Denounced the "Black Wave"
From this point, Chahine began to take on even more provocative themes, best exemplified in 1997's Al-Massir (Destiny). The story is set in Moorish Spain of the twelfth century, a glorious era for Islam, and features one of the medieval world's most illustrious figures, the philosopher Averroës. A translator of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle's works—which helped preserve them for posterity—Averroës formulated his own theories which predated Europe's Enlightenment by several centuries. Chahine's film is set during the liberal reign of Averroës' patron, the Moorish caliph Al Mansour, whose rule is threatened by a fanatical religious sect bent on exploiting Islam for political purposes. It was an obvious message to those like the fundamentalist Egyptian group that sued him for depicting a prophet on screen, and with the court that agreed with it. Chahine spoke of these contemporary political realities in a 1996 U.S. News & World Report interview with Alan Cooperman, calling the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world "a black wave coming from the gulf," he asserted. "The Egyptian has always been a very religious person, but at the same time he's a lover of life—of art and music and films and theater."
Destiny premiered at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, which also marked the occasion of a special Lifetime Achievement Award for Chahine from the prestigious cinema event. He was in good company: on other Cannes milestones, the directors Orson Welles and Luchino Visconti had been similarly honored for their bodies of work. Back in Egypt, however, Chahine continued to battle a determined faction of Islamic conservatives who objected to certain themes and images in his films. The entire Egyptian film industry felt the impact of this new cultural tide, with the number of films released from Cairo studios drastically reduced during the 1990s. "All my projects are high risk, and I fight like mad. I spend 80 percent of my time on politics, 20 percent making movies," he told Dupont in the International Herald Tribune interview. "Raising money is politics; every penny I make goes back into cinema. I can't afford to stop. And the government is trying to kill cinema by taxing us. They care only about television."
In a post-9/11 world, charges of anti-Americanism were once again raised against Chahine's works. His 2004 film, Alexandria, New York, was another semi-autobiographical exploration, featuring as its plot an esteemed Egyptian director who travels to New York City for the first time in several years. Honored with his first American retrospective, the director is crushed to learn that the half-American son he never knew he had wants nothing to do with him because of his ethnicity. The film's conclusion, wrote Deborah Young in Variety, "is uncompromising and underlines the film's earnest plea . . . for more love and tolerance in the world; more thinkers and poets, fewer armies and warriors. Chahine's sincerity is touching as well as uncomfortable, forcing viewers to see the world from another language, sensibility and point of view."
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, fourth edition, St. James Press, 2000.
Film Comment, November-December 1996.
Financial Times, September 28, 2004.
International Herald Tribune, October 17, 1997.
New Statesman, November 13, 1998.
New York Times, January 20, 2000.
Reason, November 2004.
UNESCO Courier, July-August 1995; September 1997.
U.S. News and World Report, December 23, 1996.
Variety, June 14, 2004.
Nationality: Egyptian. Born: Alexandria, 25 January 1926; name also spelled "Shahin." Education: Victoria College, and Alexandria University; studied acting at Pasadena Playhouse, California, 1946–48.
Career: Returned to Egypt, worked with Italian documentarist Gianni Vernuccio, 1948; introduced to film production by Alvisi Orfanelli, "pioneer of the Egyptian cinema," directed first film, Baba Amine, 1950; introduced actor Omar Sharif, in Sera'a fil Wadi, 1953; voluntary exile in Libya, 1965–67. Awards: Special Jury Prize, Berlin Festival, for Alexandria . . . Why?, 1979; Special Jury Prize, Berlin Festival, for An Egyptian Story, 1982; Lifetime Achievement Award, Cannes Film Festival, 1997.
Films as Director:
Baba Amine (Father Amine)
Ibn el Nil (The Nile's Son); El Muharraj el Kabir (The Great Clown)
Sayidet el Kitar (The Lady in the Train); Nessa bala Rejal (Women without Men)
Sera'a fil Wadi (Struggle in the Valley)
Shaitan el Sahara (Devil of the Desert)
Sera'a fil Mina (Struggle on the Pier)
Inta Habibi (You Are My Love)
Wadaat Hobak (Farewell to Your Love)
Bab el Hadid (Iron Gate; Cairo Station; Gare centrale) (+ role as Kennawi); Gamila Bohraid (Djamila)
Hub illal Abad (Forever Yours)
Bayn Ideak (Between Your Hands)
Nedaa el Ochak (Lover's Call); Rajol fi Hayati (A Man in My Life)
El Naser Salah el Dine (Saladin)
Fajr Yum Jadid (Dawn of a New Day)
Baya el Khawatim (The Ring Seller)
Rimal min Zahab (Sand of Gold)
El Nas wal Nil (People and the Nile)
El Ard (The Land)
Al Ekhtiar (The Choice)
Al Asfour (The Sparrow)
Awdat al Ibn al Dal (Return of the Prodigal Son)
Iskindria . . . Leh? (Alexandria . . . Why?) (+ sc)
Hadota Misreya (An Egyptian Story; La Memoire) (+ sc)
Al Wedaa ya Bonaparte (Adieu Bonaparte)
Sarikat Sayfeya (+ ph)
Iskindiriah Kaman Oue Kaman (Alexandria Again and Forever) (+ sc)
Cairo as Told by Youssef Chahine
The Emigrant (+ sc)
Lumière et compagnie (Lumière and Company)
al-Massir (Destiny) (+ co-sc)
L'Autre (El Akhar) (+ co-sc)
By CHAHINE: articles—
Interview with C. M. Cluny, in Cinéma (Paris), September/October 1973.
"Entretien avec Youssef Chahine (Le moineau)," by G. Gauthier, in Image et Son (Paris), December 1974.
"Youssef Chahine: Aller aussi loin qu'un peut," interview with N. Ghali, in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), December 1974/January 1975.
"Youssef Chahine: La memoire," an interview with Marcel Martin, in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), July/August 1983.
"La verité de personnages," an interview with C. Tesson, in Cahiersdu Cinéma (Paris), June 1985.
Interview in Cinématographe (Paris), December 1986.
"Serge le Vaillant," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), July/August 1992.
Interview with Vincent Vatrican, Thierry Jousse and Stéphane Bouquet, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1995.
On CHAHINE: books—
Richter, Erika, Realistischer Film in Agypten, Berlin, 1974.
Armes, Roy, Third World Filmmaking and the West, Berkeley, 1987.
On CHAHINE: articles—
Arnaud, C., "Youssef Chahine," in Image et Son (Paris), January 1978.
Tournes, A., "Chahine, le nationalisme demystifie: Alexandriepourquoi?," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), no. 3, 1979.
Armes, Roy, "Youssef Chahine and Egyptian Cinema," in Framework (Norwich), Spring 1981.
Joseph, I., and C. Jages, "Le Cinéma, l'Egypte et l'histoire," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1982.
Nave, B., A. Tournes, and M. Martin, "Un film bilan: La memoire de Chahine," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), April 1983.
Toubiana, Serge, "Chahine a la conque te de Bonaparte," in Cahiersdu Cinéma (Paris), October 1984.
Dossier on Chahine, in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), December 1984.
Chaillet, Jean-Paul, "Soleil d'Egypte," in Première (Paris), May 1985.
Kieffer, A., "Youssef Chahine: Un homme de dialogue," in JeuneCinéma (Paris), July/August 1985.
Tesson, C., "La Descente du Nil," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), July/August 1986.
Guerin, N., "Youssef Chahine," in Cinema 90, June 1990.
Amarger, M., "Youssef Chahine," in Ecrans d'Afrique,(Milan) vol. 3, no. 9/10, 1994.
Warg, P., "Filmmaker in Court Over Pic's Prophets," in Variety, 14/20 November 1994.
Kehr, D., "The Waters of Alexandria," in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1996.
* * *
Youssef Chahine is one of the most forceful and complex of Egyptian filmmakers whose progress over the forty years or so since his debut at the age of twenty-four offers remarkable insight into the evolution of Egyptian society. A series of sharply critical social studies—of which The Sparrow in 1975 is undoubtedly the most successful—was interrupted by a heart attack while the director was still in his early fifties. This led him to question his own personal stance and development in a manner unique in Arab cinema, and the result was the splendidly fluent autobiography Alexandria . . . Why? in 1978, which was followed four years later by a second installment titled An Egyptian Story, shot in a style best characterized as an amalgam of Fellini and Bob Fosse's All That Jazz. As such references indicate, Chahine is an eclectic filmmaker whose cosmopolitan attitudes can be traced back to his origins. He was born in Alexandria in 1926 of middle-class parents. His father, a supporter of the nationalist Wafd party, was a scrupulous but financially unsuccessful lawyer, and Chahine was brought up as a Christian, educated first at religious school and then at the prestigious Victoria College, where the language of tuition was English. After a year at Alexandria University he persuaded his parents to allow him to study drama for two years at Pasadena Playhouse, near Los Angeles, and on his return to Egypt he plunged into the film industry, then enjoying a period of boom in the last years of King Farouk's reign.
Alexandria . . . Why? presents a vividly drawn picture of this vanished world: Alexandria in 1942, awaiting the arrival of Rommel's troops, who, it is hoped, will finally drive out the British. The film is peopled with English soldiers and Egyptian patriots, aristocrats, and struggling bourgeoises, the enthusiastic young and their disillusioned or corrupt elders. Chahine mocks the excesses of the nationalists (his terrorist patriots are mostly caricatures), leaves condemnation of Zionism to Jews, and tells love stories that cross the neatly drawn barriers separating Muslim and Jew, Egyptian aristocrat and English Tommy. The revelation of Chahine's own background and a few of his personal obsessions (as with the crucified Christ) seems to have released fresh creative powers in the director. His technique of intercutting the action with scenes from Hollywood musicals and newsreel footage from the Imperial War Museum in London is as successful as it is audacious, and the transitions of mood are brilliantly handled.
Chahine is a key figure in Third World cinema. Unlike some of the other major filmmakers who also emerged in the 1950s—such as Satyajit Ray or Lester James Peries—he has not turned his back on commercial cinema. He has always shown a keen desire to reach a wide audience, and Alexandria . . . Why?, though personal, is by no means an inaccessible or difficult work. Chahine's strength as a filmmaker lies indeed in his ability to combine mainstream production techniques with a very individual style and approach. Though intensely patriotic, he has shown a readiness to criticize government policies with which he does not agree, such as those of the late President Sadat. It is ironic therefore that the appearance of Alexandria . . . Why? should have coincided with the Camp David agreements between Egypt and Israel. As a result, Chahine's very personal statement of his belief in a tolerant society came to be widely criticized in the Arab world as an opportunistic political statement and a justification of Sadat's policies.
His underlying commitment to the making of an Egyptian identity, history, and memory is evident in his more recent works as well. The 1984 Adieu Bonaparte, a Franco-Egyptian co-production, portrays an East-West encounter through an Egyptian family during Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. Chahine's continuous efforts to reconstruct and forge an Egyptian-ness, "to be nothing but Egyptian," can be most clearly seen in the ways in which he strives to retell this history from a strictly Egyptian perspective and none other. Chahine's endeavor may not be unique among the whole array of Third World filmmakers who act and/or react against the West. However, given his own involvement and interests in the Western arts and influences, which not too many non-Western filmmakers could in fact claim to be devoid of, it is his inventiveness in forms and consistency in content that make Chahine an important filmmaker in Egypt in particular and in the non-Western filmmaking world in general.
—Roy Armes, updated by Guo-Juin Hong