Born in Alexandria in Egypt in 1926, Youssef Chahine is the founder of the Egyptian personal film and one of the most important Arab directors. For more than half a century in more than 40 often taboo-breaking films, Chahine has woven together tales and history, often on the basis of his own life. He has received various awards, like in Cannes in 1997 for his life´s work.
´Thoughts have wings which no one can hold back!´ cries Ibn Rushd on seeing the pyre on which his books are being burnt. Youssef Chahine adds his own signature to an insert of this cry at the end of his film ´Fate´ (1997). But this most important of Egyptian directors, who was born in Alexandria in 1926, knows that many folk do try to hold them back. His film ´The Emigrant´, which appeared in 1994, got off to a flying start in cinemas, was then banned, then again shown, then again banned. Indeed, Islamic radicals even threatened to kill him, since he himself played the part of the holy prophet Jacob, the father of the main figure Joseph, wishing, as in other films of his, to project his personal vision of a Biblical tale onto the present.
His reference of the past to the present applies especially to his film of the life of the Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd, known to European historians as Averroes. ´Fate´ is a manifesto from the son of an Islamic father and a Christian mother against both Christian and Islamic intolerance. At the start of the film, a heretic is seen dying at the stake because of daring in Christian France in the 12th century to translate works from this Arab philosopher and Aristotelian who had wished to blend reason and faith. The film ends with an auto da fe of forbidden books in Islamic Cordoba. Ibn Rushid (Nour-el-Cherif) himself tosses a book laughingly into the flames before fleeing with his family into exile in a covered wagon.
As often in Chahine´s films, there is a lot of dancing, singing, laughing and, in a symbolic way, loving. At the end, love and a moderate sensuality triumph over violence and religious fanaticism, but the happy end is darkened. Prince Abdallah (Hani Salama) does indeed see through the hard-liners and sinks into the arms of the pretty gypsy Sarah (Ingy Abaza), but the fanatics take revenge by killing Sarah´s father, played by the king of Egyptian pop, Mohammed Mounir.
Indeed, more than anyone else, Youssef Chahine has left his mark on Egyptian filmmaking, but on account of his themes he has often been decried in his own land, as when he appeared in 1958 in the first Egyptian neo-realistic film, in which he played the newspaper-seller Kenaui, whose love for Hannuma is not returned and changes into hate. Viewers spat at him, and his family accused him of sullying the family name.
Chahines has always had a soft spot for the lower class, for the fellachs, the workers and the little clerks of the suburbs. His criticism is directed against every kind of despotism and inhumanity. ´If something goes wrong, I must do everything to effect a change. This is a citizen´s duty all over the world.´
Common to most of his films is his concern with his own and his land´s history. After returning from the USA, where he had studied film at the Pasadena Play House, he sought an adequate style in his first films. As Nasser took power, he stood behind Nasser´s call for building a new Egypt, though not siding openly with any political faction. In ´Gamila, the Woman from Algeria´ (1958), based on a book from Jacques Vergés and a script by Naghib Mahtuz, he supported the Algerian revolution.
Frustrated by Nasser´s bureaucracy he went into Algerian exile but then returned to Cairo to direct ´The Folk of the Nile´ in 1968. In 1969 there followed ´The Earth´, a film ´metaphor for the discomfort of the ruled in the face of rulers´, as Chahine himself said. This first part of a political trilogy is about a failed revolt of Egyptian fellachs against the machinations of corrupt landowners. In the other two parts ´The Choice´ (1979) and ´Sparrow´ (1973), he pilloried the incompetence of the Egyptian elite and the lost six-day war against Israel.
Chahine´s second trilogy is inspired by his own life. In ´Alexandria... Why?´ (1978) he lets his protagonist in Egypt in 1942 dream of Hollywood, just as he himself as the son of a Lebanese father and a Christian mother had done. Likewise in the next two films ´An Egyptian Tale´ (1982) and ´Alexandria again and again´ (1989) he shows the relation between his career and his land´s political history. ´Alexandria... Why?´ brought him his international breakthrough in 1978 with the Silver Bear (Special Prize of the Jury) at the International Film Festival in Berlin.
In the last of his films so far ´The Other´ (1999) Chahine seems to withdraw into the less contentious terrain of the Bible or history. The tale might equally well have served as the basis for a soap opera like Denver but is a modern variant of ´Romeo and Juliet´ or an Egyptian ´West-Side Story´. On the one hand there is the journalist Hannane, who is as pretty as she is poor and is researching into the enrichment of her land´s cocky elite, and on the other hand there is Adam, the only and hence pampered son of a corrupt family of Egyptian industrialists. They fall in love and get married, then their happiness is marred only by Adam´s mother Margret, who has grown rich by marrying into money and is even more possessive towards her son than towards her snobbish husband´s wealth. When he falls in love with Hanane and even marries her, Margret burns with jealousy and launches a campaign on several fronts against this thorn in her eye. All´s fair in love and war, she deems, be it the manipulation of her son or the use of a terrorist organisation.
Even the boulevard film magazine Kinonews praised ´The Other´ as ´astonishingly well timed film-food from Egypt´. The old master Chahine switches deftly between genres - from love drama to techno-cyber thriller, from tough action to swinging musical, yet within this garish framework he poses questions like: ´Should one resort to terrorism to establish one´s right to exist?´ and presents convictions like: ´True courage consists in resisting the anxiety which enslaves us´. Even here Chahine speaks out against corruption, repression and the misuse of religion and is cool on globalisation: ´The one really unifying factor is not globalisation but love´.
Events at the HKW:
Wednesday, 27th November, 1996
El-Kahira Menwara bi Ahlaha / Cairo ... told by Chahine
El-Youm El-Sadis / Le Sixième Jour (The Sixth Day)
Organiser: House of World Cultures
Sunday, 14th February, 1999
Chahatine Wa Noubala’a
The Smile of the Effendi
Organiser: House of World Cultures
Youssef Chahine was born on the 25th of January, 1925, in Alexandria in Egypt as the son of a respected Lebanese lawyer and a Greek orthodox Christian mother. After going to a French monastery school and English-speaking Victoria College, he began studying at the University of Alexandria but he was not keen on becoming an official in line with his parents´ wishes, rather he was fond of films. He studied film-making at the Pasadena Play House in Los Angeles then returned to Egypt, where he is still living.
After working for just two years as an actor, he made his first film ´Papa Amin´, a musical comedy, in 1950. With ´Crime in the Main Station in Cairo´ he created a milestone of Egyptian neo-realism. His international breakthrough came with his autobiographical film ´Alexandria... Why?´ in 1978, for which he was awarded the Silver Bear at the International Film Festival in Berlin. His interpretation of the Biblical story of Joseph ´The Emigrant´ in 1994 was banned in Egypt. ´Fate´ in 1997 was nominated for the Golden Palm in Cannes, where he was then given an award for his life´s work, which in the course of half a century already encompassed more than 40 films.
Youssef Chahine died from brain hemorrhage in 2008.