"I make my films first for myself. Then for my family. Then for Alexandria. Then for Egypt. And if the Arab world likes them, ahlan wa sahlan [welcome]. And if the foreign audience likes them--they are doubly welcome." --YOUSSEF CHAHINE.
- 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 Chahine's 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 Chahine's 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." He entered into voluntary exile in Lebanon and went on to create what has been termed one of the best musical comedies of the Arab cinema, "Bayya'al-khawatim/The Ring Seller" (1965). He followed with the Lebanese-Egyptian-Spanish co-production "Rimal al-dhahab/Sands of Gold" (1967), a remake of the bullfighting film "Blood and Sand" (1922 and 1941). Delays in filming and the eventual box-office failure of "Sands of Gold" caused the director to return to his native land.
After the Six Day War in 1967, Chahine was selected to helm the first Soviet-Egyptian co-production, "Al-Nas f'il-Nil/People of the Nile/Men and the Nile" (1968-1972), about the building of the Aswan dam. Neither government was pleased with the final results and the film underwent extensive editing before finally being released theatrically in 1972. In the interim, Chahine directed "Al-Ard/The Land/The Earth" (1969), an ambitious adaptation of a popular novel that tied together several of the director's favorite themes. By focusing on rural society in the 1930s, he was able to reflect the various competing interests for the land as well as draw modern parallels to contemporary Arab society. (The film was banned by the Sadat government.) Chahine continued to criticize those in power with the allegorical "al-Ikhtiyar/The Choice" (1970) and the overtly political "al-'Usfur/The Sparrow" (1973), The former dealt with a writer who murders his twin and assumes his identity (symbolizing the split between the intelligentsia and the rest of Egyptian society) while the latter interwove personal stories against the backdrop of the 1967 Six Day War. (It too was banned.)
- 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. In between, 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."
At age 81, Chahine has finished his 45th film Heya Fawda, that is expected to be released in Egypt early 2008. The film has been selected at Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival. In June of 2008, Chahine was in a coma due to suffering a brain haemorrhage. Chahine remained in the coma for month, until he passed on in July 2008. He will be missed.
- Theater and Controversy
In 1992 Jacques Lassalle approached him to stage a piece of his choice for Comédie-Française: Chahine chose to adapt Albert Camus' Caligula, which proved hugely successful. The same year he started writing The Emigrant (1994), a story inspired by the Biblical character of Joseph, son of Jacob. This had long been a dream-project and he finally got to shoot it in 1994. This film created a controversy in Egypt between the enlightened wing and the fundamentalists who opposed the depiction of religious characters in films. In 1997, 46 years and 5 invitations later, his work was acknowledged at the Cannes Film Festival with a lifetime achievement award on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the festival. He is also credited with discovering Omar Sharif, whose first starring role was in Chahine's film The Blazing Sun (1954). He also provided Nadia Lutfi with a very early role as a murder victim in Bab al-Hadid (Cairo Station).
Controversy has followed many of his movies. The Sparrow attacks Egyptian corruption and blamed it for the defeat in the Six Day War. Chahine's autobiographical series makes frequent and explicit reference to bisexuality. Cairo Station, albeit a classic of Egyptian cinema, also shocked viewers both by the sympathy with which a "fallen woman" is depicted and by the violence with which she's killed. The Immigrant had received major heat from the Arab public and the censorship committee due to the stories resemblance to the biblical tale of Joseph.