Love, Anger and Song: Remembering Youssef Chahine, Egypt's most eminent filmmaker

Waleed Marzouk, Friday 15 Jul 2011

As the third anniversary of the death of a legend approaches, Ahram Online looks back at the career of Youssef Chahine, the Arab world’s most celebrated film director whose films will be screening this weekend in London

Youssef Chahine
photo: Reuters

On 27 July 2008, Egypt and the Arab world lost its most accomplished, and many would argue simply its best, filmmaker. With over 40 feature films and documentaries in five decades to his credit, spanning a myriad of genres, Youssef Chahine left behind a body of work that easily rivals any of the oft-cited auteur legends of film history.

Born in 1927 in Alexandria to Lebanese Catholic parents, Youssef Chahine began his career directing films in Egypt in 1950 following a year-long stint studying acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. His early films like Baba Amin (1950) and Ibn El-Nil (Son of the Nile, 1951) -- his second feature film that was invited to the Cannes film festival -- were standard studio fare, but also bore the Chahine signature, manifest technically in striking camera angles and dizzyingly virtuoso tracking shots, which would later emerge in its full-fledged glory.

As he would for practically his entire career, Chahine worked at the pace of a film a year, and spent the 1950s exploring a variety of genres, all conforming to the filmic conventions Hollywood had established for the time. The decade culminated with two masterworks: Jamila Abu Hureid (Jamila the Algerian, 1958), about the young student who joins the FLN to resist the French occupation, and Bab El-Hadid (Cairo Station, 1959), the twisted masterpiece of a psychological thriller in which Chahine himself starred that took over 20 years to gain the recognition that it deserves. Four years later he would deliver the three-hour cinemascope epic El-Nasser Salah El-Dein (Saladin, 1963), drawing clear parallels between the conquering hero determined to liberate Jerusalem from the Christian crusaders and then president Gamal Abd El Nassar.

As with most controversial and insubordinate directors, things eventually came to a head with the repressive state and he underwent a self-imposed exile to Lebanon in 1964. There he produced two commercial films: Bayaa El-Khawatem (The Ring Seller, 1965), starring the iconic singer Fairuz, and Rimal Min Thahab (Golden Sands, 1966). The box office flop of the latter would force his return back to his homeland, and with renewed ardor he would embark on the phase of his career many critics consider his finest hour.

With El-Ard (The Land, 1969), based on the novel by Abel Rahman El-Sharkawy about a small peasant village’s struggles, Chahine set aside the glamour of 1940s Hollywood musicals, and drew upon postwar European neo-realism and the more recent naturalism of Russian cinema. Seamlessly blending the political with the personal, many critics firmly believe it to be the best Egyptian film ever made.

He followed up the success of El-Ard with what has come to be known as his “trilogy of defeat”, following the Naksah (Setback) of the six-day war in 1967. Film critic Amir El-Emary aptly describes this phase of his career as the time in which he turned his back on “the cinema of bourgeois compromise”; Chahine would rebel against the cinematic conventions he had mastered with a restless postmodernist deconstruction of time and narrative in his films.

El-Ikhtiyar (The Choice, 1970), based on the novel by Naguib Mahfouz, is an allegory of contemporary intellectual schizophrenia played out as a crime thriller involving two brothers. El-Asfour (The Sparrow, 1973), banned upon release, unabashedly explores the political corruption that contributed to the defeat of 1967. Awdat El-Ibn El-Dal (Return of the Prodigal Son, 1976), loosely based on the novel by Andre Gide, blended genres and was classified as a “musical tragedy”; Set between the Arab-Israeli wars, the film pits idealism against oppression, its tone at once bleak and warm.

By now many of Chahine’s recurring archetypes have been well established. To name a few: The awkward, yet brilliant and driven dissident, the severe and mournful mother, over-brimming with earnestness, the earthy peasant or laborer, hard working, sincere and wise, and the thoroughly corrupt authority figure, crushing idealism by throwing around the weight of his derisive pragmatism.

Turning his attention inward, Chahine would then begin working on what he has become most famous for: his autobiographical trilogy. He would write himself, or with scribes hired for the sole purpose of carrying out his self-absorbed will. Lacking the ability of his former collaborators, such as accomplished authors Mahfouz and El-Sharkawy, to produce complex dramas grounded in rich character studies, he resorted instead to nostalgic whimsy and settling old scores with a heady mix of bitterness and compassion, more often than not indulging himself to the point of solipsism.

Yet the surprising emotional power behind these films, delivered deftly by an old hand, ensures that they will be screened and admired for years to come. Few are left unaffected by the young Yehia -- clearly Chahine’s alter-ego -- chasing his dream in Alexandria…Why? (1978) as he leaves behind his torn but bravely encouraging family in a politically tempestuous land. In Haduta Masreya (An Egyptian Tale, 1982), the viewer is drawn into the compelling and excoriating story of a sick man confronting his past, his cardiac operation staged as a trial of conscience conducted by his family and himself as an idealistic young boy. And while Alexandria Again and Forever (1989) baffles its audience with fantastical period musical numbers, it also offers up stirring sequences of imagined collective action by the Egyptian film industry.

It is undoubtedly the sequences, and the ambition of their scope, that stand out in Chahine’s films. Filmmaker Marianne Khoury, Chahine’s niece, associate and co-producer of his films since 1985, speaks of the “sensuousness” of these sequences that had the brash impudence - or was it courageous sureness? - to include everything: The tone shifts confidently, and often infuriatingly, within a single sequence as Chahine fuses politics, social commentary and personal intimacy while hungrily simulating the direct influences of Hollywood musicals, European neo-realism and even Bollywood romanticism.

Chahine would begin receiving the accolades befitting a director of his caliber with Alexandria…Why?, which was awarded the Silver Bear prize at the Berlin film festival.

After completing El-Mohager (The Emigrant, 1994), a retelling of the biblical tale of Joseph, and El-Massir (Destiny, 1997), about the Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd, he received the Cannes film festival’s lifetime achievement award.

Perhaps not so ironically, his subsequent films were his undoubtedly his weakest. Many critics pointed to the obvious waning mental strength of the septuagenarian and the corrosive influence of the state, which had acted as his censor for five decades over the course of three presidents, now claiming him as their own product and burdening him with the responsibility of being an ambassador not only for Egypt but the Arab region as a whole. None was more disappointing than Alexandria..New York (2004), the needless and unfortunate fourth installment of his autobiographical trilogy, which, because of the leaping liberties it takes, is neither autobiographical or even convincing, and only served to disgrace his critically acclaimed triptych. Others forgive him this lamentable period because an undying love of country seeps through his frames; no matter their failings and shortcomings, his pride in Egypt’s citizens is unmistakable.

Heya Fawda? (Is it Chaos?, 2007), Chahine’s provocative swan song about a corrupt police officer -- completed by director Khaled Youssef because of Chahine’s poor health -- managed to redeem his legacy to some extent. But El-Emary still describes it as a “political cabaret with a shrill vociferous tone, that features the “simplistic politics and reductive symbolism” evident in the director’s work since El-Mohager.

Chahine, nonetheless, leaves behind a lasting legacy. El-Emary notes that in the 1970s he, almost single-handedly, elevated commercial Arab cinema from casual entertainment to the grandiosity and transcendency associated with literature and the theatre by pushing the envelope of content and technique. Arab cinema would unfortunately revert back to conventional storytelling norms of straightforward escalation, climax, catharsis and denouement, as is evident in the work of his protégés (now directors in their own right), be it the crude political grandstanding of Khaled Youssef or the more subtle character examinations of Youssry Nasrallah.

Chahine was also the first to create an independent production company, Misr International Films, able to access foreign funding -- especially starting with the French co-production Adieu Bonaparte, 1985 -- to liberate his films from the restrictions of the state. His real legacy, however, was the muscular boldness with which he tackled several issues in one fell swoop. With almost every film he made he consciously bought a pair of shoes several sizes too big, and never doubted he could fill them. Two successive generations of filmmakers have followed, and while many share the same delusions of grandeur none have yet to come as close as Chahine to demonstrating that greatness.

To mark the anniversary of his death, Misr International Films is working to establish the Youssef Chahine Foundation, with its headquarters in the cramped and cozy apartment on Champilion Street where he did his creative labouring, to serve as a one-stop-shop for all things Chahine, but the process still remains bogged down with the red tape of legal licensing.

Khoury acknowledges that enough time has now passed to allow for a critical re-reading of his body of work, and hopes to use the foundation as a base for the academic analysis of the development of Chahine’s story-boarding techniques, and to turn five years’ worth of personal taped interviews into the definitive documentary on the man and his lasting legacy. Khoury is also hoping to secure an open-air venue to screen Awdat El-Ibn El-Dal, which she believes will have a special resonance given the country’s current political turbulence, in time for the anniversary.

London’s Shubbak festival will be screening Bab El-Hadid on 15 July and El-Asfour and Alexandria…Why? on 16 July at the Free Word Center.

As the anniversary of his death approaches, Ahram Online invites its readers to light a candle for Youssef Chahine in loving memory and pay tribute to a bonafide cinematic master by settling into their favorite of his films. We recommend the evocative El-Asfour, now readily available on DVD, whose undertone cries out a chant that resounds evermore pertinently through the streets of Egypt today: “Hold your head up high; You’re Egyptian.

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