Youssef Chahine: Leading Egyptian film-maker

Tuesday 29 July 2008 00:00 BST

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.

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