Youssef Chahine: Leading Egyptian film-maker

Youssef Chahine earned the title "the pioneer of social realism" in Egyptian cinema. His country once had the fourth largest film industry in the world; and it has been an important tool in securing Egypt's cultural dominance in the Arabic-speaking world since the 1920s.

When I was a pupil at Victoria College in Alexandria (sometimes known as the "Eton of the Mediterranean") in the years after the Second World War, we were reminded by the British staff there that we were expected to succeed. Before our eyes they dangled portraits of those who had preceded us – King Hussein of Jordan, or the actor Omar Sharif, who had just become a star after being discovered by Chahine, another Victoria College old boy.

He had featured Sharif in his 1954 film Siraa Fil-Wadi (The Blazing Sun). This was Chahine's sixth film – and the first Egyptian one to be shot in the Valley of the Kings. It explored a theme much loved by Chahine, that of social injustice and the individual's struggle against oppression, whether from landowners, governments or backward social traditions. He was to revisit these themes on an epic scale in El Ard (The Land, 1969).

Chahine's 1957 Bab el Hadid (Cairo Station, 1957) starred the director himself as a crippled newspaper seller at Cairo's main railway station. The film, which was banned in Egypt for 12 years, was written by Abdel Hay Adid, and was the first in Egyptian cinema to create original characters; previously, films had borrowed from novels by authors such as Naguib Mahfouz, or from Shakespeare, Dickens and Zola, or from Hollywood.

Although social realism was his trademark during a 55-year career, Chahine went through different phases, using a range of styles and genres, while maintaining his distinctive cinematic language throughout. The first phase was his social realism and included Baba Amin (Father Amine, 1950), Ibn el Nil (Son of the Nile, 1951), The Blazing Sun (also known as Struggle in the Valley), and two further films starring Omar Sharif as well as Cairo Station.

The second phase witnessed a love-hate relationship with the revolutionary regime of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. Chahine used historic events to try to shed light on what was happening in the present, while keeping an eye on the censor's reaction. Djamila (Jamila, The Algerian, 1958), for instance, was an exaggerated account of the activities of the Algerian revolutionary Djamila Bouhired, in which the heroine is tortured by the French.

Fed up with the bureaucrats of the state-owned film board in Egypt, Chahine moved to Beirut in the 1960s and made several films including the musical Biya el-Khwatim (The Ring Seller, 1964). But on hearing that Nasser was asking why this "mad artist" was not working in Egypt, he returned home.

He then produced several films that mixed the dreams of the individual with bigger historic events, including Al-Nass wal Nil (Those People of the Nile, 1968), The Land and Al Asfour (The Sparrow, 1973) about the Nasser regime's defeat in the Six Day War in 1967.

Nasser's control of the film-making industry was a mixed blessing; lavish subsidies came at the price of heavy censorship and artistic interference so that directors and script-writers were made to conform to revolutionary themes that pushed Nasser's socialist and anti-western agenda.

Chahine's epic El-Nasser Salah el Dine (Saladin, 1963) was a reflection of this. A loose adaptation of one of the battles of the Islamic hero Saladin, it was made in CinemaScope with two battalions and 120 cavalrymen of Nasser's army put at Chahine's disposal. The director later said he was forced by those in control of the budget to add Nasser's name to the title. Nevertheless, he managed to inject some of his favourite subplots, including a love story between a Muslim and Christian and a Christian Arab fighting under Saladin's colours against the invaders. He used a similar theme in Wadan Bonaparte (Adieu, Bonaparte, 1985). Set in the period of the Napoleonic expedition into Egypt, the film explores the complex relationships between East and West when a homosexual French general falls in love with a local Egyptian.

Chahine was the son of a middle-class father of a Lebanese descent and a Greek mother. He was born in 1926 in Alexandria, where mixed marriages were then the norm. Middle-class families put great emphasis on education and art, and Chahine's struggling civil servant father took on extra work to send his son to Victoria College, and later to study acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in California between 1946 and 1948.

The key to understanding Chahine's complex character lies in his three autobiographical films: Iskendria. . . Leh? (Alexandria. . . Why?, 1978) about the city during the Second World War when a patriotic Egyptian homosexual kidnaps a British soldier but falls in love with him; Hadota Misreya (An Egyptian Story, 1982) about a film-maker struggling with career compromises; and Iskendria Kaman Wakaman (Alexandria Again and Forever, 1990). His exploration of the rich cultural mix of Alexandria, reflecting the historic fact of Jewish contribution to all walks of Egyptian life, made him a target for the anger of Nasserites, and anti-peace leftists accused him of backing President Anwar Sadat's peace with Israel, which coincided with the making of the first part of the Alexandria trilogy.

As two Alexandrians, Chahine and I enjoyed talking about days gone by whenever we met over the years. He always reminded me that his "well of cultural strength" was his childhood in Alexandria, a city that always resisted the Arabisation, and later the Islamisation, of Egypt.

In 1994, a fundamentalist lawyer succeeded in getting a court to ban Chahine's film Al-Muhager (The Emigrant) because its plot was based on the story of Joseph in Egypt, found in the Bible and the Koran; most interpretations of Islam ban the depiction of prophets. Fundamentalists were angry particularly because his characters spoke colloquial modern Egyptian rather than the classical Arabic language, reviving a (long-suppressed) belief in Egypt that Jews were ethnically Egyptian.

Chahine responded in 1997 with the historical film Al-Massir (Destiny), about the 12th-century Andalusian Muslim philosopher Averroes, whose books were banned by extremists in the Islamic kingdom of Andalusia. Again, all his characters spoke modern Egyptian, and the film created scenes reflecting modern events, like the attempted assassination of the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz by an Islamist.

In 1997 Chahine received a special award from the Cannes film festival. In his later years he became more outspoken in criticising oppression in the Arab world as well as America's foreign policy which he believed contradicted her contribution to the world. He had been much influenced by Hollywood as a young film-maker. "All we see is Spider-Men and musclemen," he said in 2005. "America has become violent like the new movies."

Chahine's last film, Chaos, was finished by his disciple Khaled Youssef because of Chahine's ill-health. It was screened in London in March.

Adel Darwish

Youssef Chahine, film director: born Alexandria, Egypt 25 January 1926; married; died Cairo 27 July 2008.

A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn