The grand master of Arab cinema, Egyptian film director Youssef Chahine, died at the age of 82 in Cairo on Sunday July 27 th after an often controversial career which spanned half a century. For a man already in his 80s and who was credited with introducing art-house movies to the Arab world, his last work „Chaos” (released last year with the Arabic title of Heya Fawda) pulled no punches.
„He skewers political parties and Islamists,” was the verdict of the film industry’s Variety magazine.”He levels devastating charges against the past half-century of autocratic rule, whose regimes have destroyed civil society and made the average citizen either apathetic or afraid to protest.”
Chahine was airlifted to hospital in Paris after suffering a brain hemorrhage and falling into a coma on June 14, with the Egyptian state footing the bill. He was returned to Egypt still comatose on July 16.
„I am young. I am only 81 years old,” Chahine told a press conference at the Venice Film Festival last September. „I hope I can keep working for another 10 years. Old age is to let oneself become old.”
Chahine won official plaudits for his pioneering role in Egypt’s film industry and was awarded the Cannes festival’s 50th anniversary lifetime achievement award in 1997. But he has never shied away from controversy, criticizing US foreign policy as well as Egypt and the Arab world.
Chahine made his first of 44 movies in 1950 and it was he who discovered and launched the career of fellow Egyptian Omar Sharif, who then shot to stardom with „Lawrence of Arabia” and „Doctor Zhivago.”A Variety reviewer hailed Destiny as „the most courageous frontal attack on Islamic fundamentalism to come out of the Arab cinema to date … and a blunt allegory condemning the politically driven fanaticism of present times.” Despite his often abrasive tone, Egyptian authorities – officially at least – recognized Chahine’s contribution to the nation’s cinema and his „daring” representation of its society. Chahine is survived by his French wife Colette. A funeral ceremony will be held in Cairo on Monday, ahead of his burial in Alexandria.
YOUSSEF CHAHINE, director of some 40 films, is probably the most independent of Arab film-makers, producing what he thinks is important, even at his own expense, and raising issues that disturb.
Born in 1926, son of a Syrian lawyer and a Christian family in Alexandria, Egypt, Chahine attended the prestigious Victoria College. He dreamed of the cinema and theatre, watched Hollywood musicals, and in 1946 left to study drama in California. Chahine’s early films in Egypt included Raging Sky (1953), begun while Farouk was still King and dealing with a peasant farmer’s challenge to a feudal landlord. But the first truly indicative film of his style and preoccupations was Cairo Central Station (Bab al-Hadid), in 1958.
Chahine himself plays the central character, Kenaoui, a simple-minded man, beneficently employed as a newspaper-seller. He cuts pictures of women from magazines for the station hut he lives in, but a living focus of his sexual frustrations is Hanouma (played by the popular actress Hind Rostom), who sells lemonade and is engaged to Abou Serib (Farid Chawqi), porter and trade union organiser. With unthinking but affectionate playfulness Hanouma exacerbates Kenaoui’s frustration and adds to his confusion which leads to tragic death. Egyptian audiences, used to simpler melodramas, were disturbed and rejected the film. It was not seen again for some 20 years.
In 1963 Chahine made Saladin (original title: El Nasser – defender/deliverer – Salah ed-Dine), an epic, three-hour film in CinemaScope named after the 12th Century Sultan who, as the film begins, is preparing to liberate Jerusalem from its Christian Crusader occupiers. It was scripted by Naguib Mahfouz and the poet and progressive writer, Abderrahman Cherkaoui, and a parallel between Saladin and President Nasser is easily drawn. Saladin is shown as an educated and peaceable man – at one point he is asked to give clandestine medical help to Richard (the Lion Heart), shot by an arrow, and later he tells him: „Religion is God’s and the Earth is for all … I guarantee to all Christians in Jerusalem the same rights as are enjoyed by Muslims.”
A novel by Cherkaoui, serialised in 1952, formed the basis of The Earth (1968), noted particularly for its image of the peasant farmer – „eternal ‘damned of the earth’” – which broke with „the ridiculous image the cinema had (hitherto) given him” (Khaled Osman). There followed a further collaboration with Mahfouz on The Choice (1970), ostensibly a murder investigation story involving twin brothers, but with the underlying theme of intellectual schizophrenia. In 1976 he made The Return Of The Prodigal Son, a „musical tragedy”, but four years earlier had made one of his greatest films, The Sparrow (1972), both co-productions with Algeria. A journalist and a young police officer meet while investigating incidents of corruption. They and other people of the left pass through Bahiyya’s house, whose name represents the idea of the mother country and is invoked in Cheikh Imam’s song at the end of the film. After Nasser’s announcement of the defeat in the war and his subsequent resignation, Bahiyya runs into the street, followed by a growing crowd, shouting „No! we must fight. We won’t accept defeat!”
In Alexandria, Why? (1978), Yehia, a young Victoria College student, is obsessed with Hollywod and dreams of making cinema. It is 1942, the Germans are about to enter Alexandria, thought preferable to the presence of the British. Yehia’s cousin is gay and ‘buys’ drunken British soldiers. Jewish friends are forced to leave and decide to settle in Palestine. In An Egyptian Story (1982) Yehia is a flim-maker, going to London (as Chahine had earlier) for open-heart surgery. He has a brief affair with a taxi driver. As a result of the operation, he reviews his life: moments of Chahine’s own films are replayed against their autobiographical and social historical context. Memory is very important to Chahine’s most recent work —whether of the „city of my childhood, Alexandria, between the two world wars tolerant, secular, open to Muslims, Christians and Jews” or of a more distant past: such as evoked in Adieu Bonaparte (1985), based on the cultural aspect of Bonaparte’s expedition into Egypt (1798). „Out of this marvellous confrontation there was a rebirth of Egyptian consciousness, of its past … which belongs to humanity.”
The early years of Arab cinema
The new Arab cinema