Thirteen years have passed since the departure of the biggest and most important figure not only in Egyptian cinema but the history of Arab cinema. Youssef Chahine died 27 July 2008 at the age of 82 after a life full of clamour and spectacular successes.
Talking about Chahine’s cinema and his personality raises several questions.
Throughout the entire history of Egyptian cinema no director caused such controversy as Chahine, to the extent that controversy became one of the main reasons for the man’s fame.
In my view, this controversy emanates from Chahine’s rebelling personality and his relentless efforts to break the mould of commonness and go beyond the familiar. Since his early years, he refused to fulfill his father’s wish to study engineering and preferred to go to America to study cinema. Upon his return, he made his directorial debut Papa Amin (1950) before reaching 24-years-old.
Although he was a member of the aristocratic class, Chahine supported the poor in his films and believed in socialism and advocated for it in his films. He was the only director who was bold enough to execute an innocent man in Conflict in the Valley (1954) and he was the only Christian who directed a film that denounced the Crusades in Saladin (1963).
While he was a Nasserite director, he didn’t flinch from exposing the corruption of the Nasser regime in The Sparrow. He is also the only cineaste who returned after the 1967 defeat from Beirut to Cairo, while others went the other way round in a collective immigration that Egyptian cinema didn’t witness before. He was invited to Paris to direct, not a film but the famous Albert Camus play Caligula, for the Comédie-Française.
He was the first to seek financing for his films through unconventional methods, which in its turn raised suspicion concerning the cinema he presented.
He was engaged in the most violent clash with the highest Islamic religious authority (Al-Azhar) regarding The Emigrant, which was banned from cinemas by a legal verdict in 1994, as well as other brushes with censorship, including over The Sparrow, and Is This Chaos?
The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described rebellion as the real motivation behind any creativity. However, it seems that Chahine’s desire to go against the norm was so intense that he couldn’t control it.
The majority of the Egyptian films at the time Chahine made his first were either traditional love stories taking place in luxurious villas, low class comedies that combined a singer, a belly dancer and a well-known comedian, or plots and traps hatched in night clubs. Chahine’s debut was a fantasy involving a middle class Egyptian family in which its breadwinner dreams that he died and was watching the downfall of his family without being able to do anything to save it.
Chahine, who later didn’t care about audiences, was shocked from the audience’s reluctance, at the time, to watch his film.
He temporarily tried to play it safe, so as to be present on the Egyptian cinematic map, making four traditional films, including The Lady of the Train and The Big Clown, albeit showing high artistic capabilities in these films.
Since 1954, Chahine started to speak his mind, or more accurately commenced the big projects of his career. In that year he directed Conflict in the Valley starring Faten Hamama and his new discovery Omar Al-Sharif, in what can be considered the first direct and mature cinematic condemnation of the feudal system that was prevalent in the Egyptian countryside before the 1952 Revolution.
This film and a subsequent one, Conflict in the Harbour (1956), revealed Chahine’s early interest in class struggle within Egyptian society. This interest has reached its intellectual peak in his flagrantly propagandist film Dawn of a New Day (1965), and its emotional apex in The Land (1970). The former didn’t just stop at denouncing capitalism but it heralded a new society where socialism would prevail, while the latter was an emotionally painful cry in the face of oppressive forces seeking to usurp the poor and deny their rights.
According to Chahine, ordinary people weren’t just the victims of class struggle, but also sufferers of poverty and illness, as in Qenawi’s case, the protagonist of Cairo Train Station (1958), which was played by Chahine himself. It was this marginalised personality that Chahine extracted from thousands of passengers frequenting the train station daily.
He did the same with ’Ouka, a monkey handler (played by Mohsen Mohie Eddine) and an ordinary mother Siddiqa (played by Dalida), the protagonists of The Sixth Day (1986), drawing each from millions of Egyptians who lived the Cholera epidemic in 1947.
The pan-Arab dimension was also a very important feature in Chahine’s cinema. He made Djamilah (1958) chronicling the Algerian people’s struggle against French colonialists. In another direction, Chahine's The Sparrow (1972) partially tackled the reasons behind the 1967 defeat. It was the best cinematic expression capturing the first days of the defeat and was concluded with fantastic archival footage of the masses going to the streets demanding that President Gamal Abdel Nasser not step down.
Between Djamilah and The Sparrow, Chahine directed Saladin, which raised a number of controversial questions that remain so until now: How is it that a Christian director was the one to make a film exposing the avarice of the Crusaders towards Islamic holy land? Did Chahine try to use Saladin as a symbol of Nasser, consequently transforming the historical conflict, fuelled by the Catholic Church in the name of the cross, into a conflict between the West and the Arabs in order to serve Nasser’s orientation?
Did Chahine distort historical facts and create dramatic characters that have no standing in reality?
What’s certain is that Chahine got close to the ruling institution as much as he rebelled against prevailing norms.
From 1976, Chahine's rebellion grew, even attacking his own cinema and embarking on making films so particular that his audience dwindled gradually. Nobody remained but his die-hard fans who adored his art and comprehended his lofty cinematic language.
Following his film The Return of the Prodigal Son in 1976, Chahine got carried away in transferring his autobiography to the silver screen in four films, starting with Alexandria...Why? (1978) and concluding with Alexandria-New York (2004), covering a 35-year period.
At the same time, he showed greater interest in religious, intellectual and political issues, such as in The Emigrant, The Destiny (1997), The Other (1999) and Is This Chaos? (2007).
But we should keep in our minds that the man behind The Land, Cairo Train Station and The Choice (1970) is the same director of mediocre films such as A Lovers’ Call (1960) and Silence, We're Rolling (2001), among others.
*This article was first published in Ahram Online in 2018 on the occasion of Youssef Chahine's 10th death anniversary.
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