Youssef Chahine, possibly the world’s most renowned Arab filmmaker and the winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, died today at Al-Maadi Military Hospital in Cairo. About four weeks ago, Chahine fell into a coma after suffering a brain hemorrhage. He was 82.
Throughout his nearly six-decade career, Chahine tackled various genres and styles, ranging from socially conscious melodramas such as the Grand Hotel-like Cairo Station (1958), which remains his best-known film, to politically charged dramas addressing government repression and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Additionally, his (socially conscious) romantic drama The Blazing Sun (1954) launched the career of Omar Sharif.
Born in Alexandria on January 25, 1926, to a Christian family of Greek and Lebanese origin, Chahine grew up speaking French and English (reportedly better than Arabic). Adding to that the fact that many of his films were French co-productions, it should come as no surprise that Arab/Egyptian nationalists would complain that Chahine was not Arab or Egyptian enough.
In addition to the aforementioned Cairo Station, among the other important Chahine films are The Land (1969), the story of peasant farmers and landowners fighting over land in the Nile Delta; The Sparrow (1972), which blamed corruption of the political classes for the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel; and the “Alexandria Trilogy,” comprised of the controversial (and special Jury Prize winner at the 1979 Berlin Film Festival) Alexandria, Why? (1978), An Egyptian Story (1982), and Alexandria Again and Forever (1990). There was also Alexandria… New York in 2004, a critique of the American Dream, with autobiographical touches.
“I have a problem with America, you can call it a dilemma,” Chahine once told an interviewer. “I used to love it very much, I studied there, my first love was there … I don’t hate America as some think … but it is difficult to sympathize with it.”
Chahine’s American “dilemma” was manifested in some of his films: one scene in Alexandria, Why?, for instance, shows the Statue of Liberty sneering at arriving immigrants. Leaving no blasphemous stone unturned, the film also offers a depiction of a love affair between an Egyptian man and a British soldier, and another between a Muslim man and a Jewish woman.
In 1994, a fundamentalist Muslim lawyer got a court order banning Chahine’s The Emigrant (right), for the film’s plot was based on the story of Joseph, found in both the Bible and the Koran – most interpretations of Islam forbid the depiction of prophets. (By that time, more than 750,000 Egyptians had seen the film.) Destiny, released three years later, was Chahine’s cinematic response to censorship and religious fanaticism. Set in 12th-century Andalusia, the film chronicles the efforts of religious nuts to ban the work of Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd.
The Emigrant was hardly Chahine’s first run-in with the forces of political-religious repression. According to a Guardian article, Cairo Station “fell foul of Egyptian film censorship laws, which banned ‘the inordinate emphasis of erotic parts’ and the representation of ‘social problems as hopeless.’"
Chahine’s last film was This is Chaos (2007), a biting critique of the Egyptian government’s persecution of democracy activists. Already in frail health, he co-directed the film with his protégé Khaled Youssef.
Chahine also wrote many of his films, and acted in a handful of them, including Cairo Station, in which he is fully believable as a dim-witted newspaper salesman at Cairo’s main train station.
Chahine quote: The Daily Star
Youssef Chahine article at Alex Cinema.