An Egyptian story
Samir Farid reviews the long career of Youssef Chahine, honoured last week by the French government
On Wednesday 15 November, Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, who turned 80 this year, received the Insigne d'officier dans l'ordre national de la legion d'honneur from French Ambassador Philippe Coste at a celebration held at the French Embassy in Cairo.
Chahine was born in 1926 in Alexandria to a Greek mother and a father of Lebanese descent. He attended Victoria College in Alexandria, and then studied acting at Pasadena Playhouse in the US. He married Frenchwoman Collette Fafadone, also born in Alexandria, in 1955. Between 1950 and 2004, he directed 36 features and five short documentary and narrative films. Among them a joint production with the Soviet Union in 1968, four joint productions with Algeria between 1972 and 1982, and eight with France between 1985 and 2004.
Chahine won the grand prize at the Carthage Film Festival in 1970, the jury's special award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1979 for Iskindiriya...leih? (Alexandria...Why?) and the golden anniversary award at the 50th Cannes Film Festival in 1997 for lifetime achievement. He is also the only Egyptian director to have been honoured by the Berlin, Cannes and Venice film festivals.
Chahine is one of Egypt's stars of the second half of the 20th century, recognised both at home and abroad. He is sufficiently well known in Egypt that people greet him on the streets, and his work is recognised abroad, especially in the Arab world.
It is possible to split Chahine's career into four phases. During the first he directed 18 films, starting with Baba Amin (Papa Amin) in 1950 and ending with Fagr Yom Gedid (Dawn of a New Day) in 1965. In the second phase he directed five films, staring with Baya' Al-Khawatim (The Ring Seller) in 1965 and ending with Al-Nas wal-Nil (People and the Nile) in 1972. The third comprises his four joint Algerian productions, starting with Al-Asfour (The Sparrow) in 1972 and ending with Haduta Masriya (An Egyptian Story) in 1982. During the fourth phase he worked on eight French co- productions, beginning with Wadaan Bonaparte (Adieu, Bonaparte) and ending, in 2004, with Alexandria...New York.
The military coup of 1952 did not mark the start of a new stage in Chahine's work nor, for that matter, in the history of Egyptian cinema. The new regime was interested in producing political propaganda films, but it did not seek to exert control over the cinema industry until it turned to socialism in 1961.
During Chahine's first phase, during which the golden age of Egyptian cinema reached its peak, he directed 18 films of a variety of styles. The most significant were Sira' Fil-Wadi (The Blazing Sun, 1954), which was shot in Upper Egypt amongst Pharaonic antiquities, the 1956 film Sira' Fil-Mina (Dark Waters), filmed among the fishermen of Alexandria harbour, and the 1957 Inta Habibi (You're my Love), in which he returned to Upper Egypt, this time to Aswan. The most autobiographical film of this period was the 1958 Bab Al-Hadid (Cairo Station). It was screened to acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival, despite being a box-office flop in Egypt where the public reacted negatively. Indeed, Chahine was spat at during the film's opening night.
Bab Al-Hadid was a complete departure for Egyptian film both in terms of form and content. The cinema companies dealt with Youssef Chahine as a "crazy" director, meaning, of course, "different", yet when his "madness" went too far in Cairo Station the punishment was harsh. He had no other choice than to direct either political propaganda or commercial films. Of the first, he directed the 1958 Jamila Al-Jaza'iriya (Algerian Jamila ) and, in 1963, Al-Nasser Salahaddin (Saladin). Among the commercial films of these years are Hubb Ila Al-Abad (Eternal Love, 1959), Bayn Idayk (Between Your Hands,1960), Nida Al-Ushaq (Call of the Lovers, 1960) and Ragel Fi- Hayati (The Man in My Life, 1961). Yet even these commercial vehicles failed to woo the public.
Chahine's production changed completely following the defeat of 1967 and the student demonstrations of 1968 that began in Cairo in February and reached their peak in Paris in May. The director switched from supporting to opposing the regime, and he has remained in opposition until this day.
Chahine returned to Cairo following the 1967 defeat and completed People and the Nile, the first ever Egyptian-Soviet co-production. Neither the Egyptian nor Soviet authorities liked the film and it was banned in both countries. This was the director's first run-in with censorship, and it was not to be his last. Years later he was obliged to shoot new scenes and effectively re-produce People and the Nile, which was screened in 1972. Twenty years later, in 1992, the original version of the film was screened in France under the title Al-Nil Wal-Haya (The Nile and Life). It has yet to be shown in Egypt.
Chahine's position at this point in his career is exemplified in two films, his 1969 masterpiece Al-Ard (The Land) and the 1970 film Al-Ikhtiar (The Choice), which received its first screening a year later, in 1971.
Realising that to continue working he must produce his own films, the director set up a private company, Misr Al-Alamiya. Yet Egyptian distribution companies refused to fund any of its projects. The public film sector in Algeria, though, was at the height of its resurgence and welcomed Arab and international directors. Thanks to the Algerian public film sector Chahine was able to produce four films between 1972 and 1982. Then, when the socialist party assumed rule in France in 1982, and Jacque Lang became French minister of culture, Chahine embarked on the first of his eight French co-productions.
The first of the Algerian films, The Sparrow, was banned in Egypt until 1975 because it ended with a demand for war to liberate Egyptian territory occupied by Israel in 1967.
After The Sparrow, which addressed the corruption that led to the 1967 defeat, Chahine directed the 1976 masterpiece Awdat Al-Ibn Al-Dal (Return of the Prodigal Son), his elegy to the era of Nasser. Some thought there was an inherent contradiction in a political film that was also a musical but not Chahine, who once told me that initially he had conceived of Al-Ard as a musical. The film Return of the Prodigal Son ends with members of the same family taking up arms against one another. In Lebanon, meanwhile, the civil war had already begun.
In 1979 Alexandria...Why?, the first of a four-part autobiographical series of films, was released. It was followed in 1982 by An Egyptian Story, in 1990 by Iskindiriya Kaman wa Kaman (Alexandria Again and Forever), and in 2004 with Alexandria...New York.
Following the bread riots in January 1977 President Anwar El-Sadat lost hope that any Arab nationalist and Islamic solution to the conflict over Palestine would emerge. The bread riots had underlined the enormous cost Egypt was paying, and Sadat resolved in their wake to visit Israel in November 1977. The Camp David Accords were signed in 1978 and the peace accords with Israel in 1979. Nationalists and Islamists in Egypt and the Arab world rose up against Sadat. These events coincided with Chahine's writing of Alexandria...Why?, which he completed in 1978. In depicting the Alexandria of his youth, during and following WWII, he foregrounded the tolerance that was characteristic of the city, presenting a love story between a Muslim boy and a Jewish girl. Nationalist and Islamic groups raised their voices. They had, and still have, enough money to own newspapers and television stations, and they were mobilised against Chahine. Alexandria...Why? was denounced as propaganda for Sadat's new orientation. The fact that it won jury's special award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1979 was cited as corroboratory evidence.
Some film critics hold that in his 12 co- productions with Algeria and France Chahine abandoned the Egyptian public and began to address his work to a French, and beyond them, an international audience. It would be more correct to say that he was no longer addressing an exclusively Egyptian public. And while local audiences had little apprehension when it came to the Algerian films, the French co-productions, beginning with Adieu, Bonaparte, left many confused.
The relationship between Egypt and France has always been one of love-hate. Egypt owes to France Champollion's deciphering of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and its entry into the modern world in the 19th century. Yet while the French trace the modernisation of Egypt to Napoleon Bonaparte's occupation of Egypt in 1798, Egyptians trace it to the missions Muhammad Ali sent to France after he assumed rule in 1805, following Napoleon's departure.
During the second half of the 20th century the relationship between Egypt and France was further complicated by the Tripartite Aggression and French brutality in Algeria between 1954 and 1961 during a liberation struggle that became known in Egypt and the Arab world as the revolution of million martyrs. Adieu, Bonaparte paid the price for this love-hate relationship between Egypt and France. It is a film in which the protagonist becomes friends with a French general after being overawed by the modern scientific instruments he had seen in the general's home.
Chahine was 60 when he embarked on Al-Yawm Al-Sadis (The Sixth Day), in 1986. It is perhaps the most French of the co-productions; adapted from a novel by Andree Chedid, a French writer of Egyptian origin, it stars the French-Egyptian singer Dalida.
For the first time Chahine voices his fear of death, expressed through the journey of the film's heroine with her grandson, ill with cholera, on a Nile boat heading to Alexandria in hope he will reach the sea and be cured before the sixth day, when those infected with cholera are said to die. The events take place in the 1940s, when many villages in the Delta experienced a cholera epidemic. The film flopped in both Egypt and France, and Chahine was pained both by its failure and Dalida's suicide later the same year.
The 1987 sit-in by cinema industry syndicates to protest changes in the arts syndicates' law -- Chahine was among those who participated in the strike -- provides the background for the third of the autobiographical series, the 1990 film Alexandria Again and Forever, in which the director clearly positions himself as being among those demanding freedom and democracy in Egypt. In the 1994 film Al-Muhagir (The Emigrant), he turned to the distant past; the film, inspired by the story of the Prophet Joseph, was banned following a decision made by Al-Azhar, in the same year Chahine won the State Merit Award and an attempt was made on the life of Naguib Mahfouz.
Three years later, in 1997, Al-Masir (Destiny) was released, a film based on the life of the philosopher Ibn Rushd in Andalusia; excoriated by the Islamic extremists of his day, who burned his books, the film follows the smuggling of those same volumes to Egypt. In the 1999 film Al-Akhar (The Other), Chahine expresses both his anger over American hegemony and his rejection of terrorism in the name of religion. In 2001, at the age of 75, he directed Sukut, Hansawwar (Silence, We're Rolling), in which he returned to the musical.
In 2004 came Alexandria... New York, the fourth part in the autobiographical series, which focused on what the director wished had happened rather than what actually did. And now, at 80, Chahine is once again at work. As these words are being written Egypt's most celebrated film director is shooting a new film, Hiya Fawda (What a Mess).