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.

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
I'm not worried about United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
filmReview: Serena is a strangely dour and downbeat affair
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Float Teachers needed for various temporary roles

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Primary Teacher's * perm roles following resignation period

£110 - £130 per day + TBA: Randstad Education Reading: Primary Teachers needed...

Science Teacher Norwich

£25000 - £33000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad are seeking ...

Reception Teachers needed for January 2015

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Th...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker