Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 July - 6 August 2008
Issue No. 908
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Adieu Chahine

The Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, who died last Sunday at the age of 82, will be remembered both as one of Arab cinema's great auteurs and as a brave man who always sided with the oppressed, writes Hani Mustafa

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No one person has influenced Arab cinema and the Arabs' perception of cinema more than Youssef Chahine, who began making films in 1950 following his return from a three- year period of study in the United States. From the very beginning of his career, Chahine's style of filmmaking presented a marked shift from what many people at the time assumed cinema to be.

For Chahine, there was never any easy resolution of a film's dramatic conflict, as he set himself the task of not only entertaining his audiences, though he did do that with consummate skill, but also of challenging audiences to think and to understand the intellectual content of his films, something which earned many of his films the reputation of being difficult fully to comprehend.

However, it was that feeling of being slightly ill at ease when walking out of the cinema after seeing one of his films that Chahine cherished most, since he always believed in the power of the people once they began to question an unjust social order and in the power of film to raise such questions in people's minds.

His study of theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse in California endowed Chahine's style with theatrical elements that marked his films out from the dominant realist style of Egyptian cinema when he started making films. However, if Chahine departed from established realist norms in terms of style, he shared the realist school's concern for the poor and its representation of the injustices the poor suffer at the hands of the rich.

Though strong empathy with the wretched of the earth can be discerned in Chahine's 1951 film Son of the Nile, by 1954 and the film The Blazing Sun this empathy has turned into full-blooded support for the small farmers depicted in the film, who struggle to break the monopoly of feudal landlords over the sale of sugarcane to the sugar companies.

This struggle is lead by a man who appears from among the people themselves, being the educated son of one of the farmers who returns to his native village in Upper Egypt in order to defend his community's right to a better life than the slave-like life it then led. In many ways The Blazing Sun reflects the new direction society was taking at the time it was produced, a time when the 1952 Revolution had clamped down on the great landowners and told poor peasant farmers to "raise their heads." The main character of the film also has a similar social background to those of the Free Officers who led the 1952 Revolution.

Yet, Chahine's support for the right of the disenfranchised to organise themselves in protest was perhaps given greatest voice in his masterpiece of the time, the 1958 film Central Station. In this film, set in Cairo's central railway station, besides the central story of three working people, two men and a woman, there is also a secondary dramatic thread that depicts the struggle of the station's porters to form a union.

Also in 1958, Chahine produced his film Jamila the Algerian as an expression of solidarity with the national liberation struggle of the Algerian people against French colonialism. This film, though probably one of the least stylistically accomplished of all Chahine's films, is the first of a number of works that Chahine produced as an expression of his engagement with the political conflicts of the time.

Chahine again announced his position in Al-Nasser Salah el-Din, a film produced in 1963, in which he presented his position regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The film, a historical work, deals with the capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in the Middle Ages and its liberation by Saladin, and it was a vehicle for Chahine to express his pan- Arab views and his support for the Palestinian people's struggle against occupation.

In this film, Chahine's technical skills were happily wedded to his political beliefs, and this matching of political content with powerful, sometimes even stunning, artistic effects reached its climax in Chahine's 1969 film The Land. Here, Chahine succeeded in staging unforgettable panoramic scenes depicting the struggle of the peasants against the confiscation of their land by a feudal landlord and the state authorities supporting him.

Scenes in this film of peasants rising up against their oppressor, or of soldiers on horseback attacking them, or of the death of the film's main character, Mohamed Abu Soweilim, tied by his feet and dragged along by a horse as he clings to the earth with his fingers, are among the most memorable in the whole of Arab cinema, and a great part of the reason why they stick in the memory many years later is due to their artistic accomplishment.

However, The Land, unforgettable as it is, was to become Chahine's last truly popular film, and he began to move towards a more philosophically nuanced style of filmmaking, while still retaining his sympathy for the poor and dispossessed. In The Choice, for example, made in 1970, Chahine showed his preoccupation with the relationship between intellectuals and the political power represented by the state, especially in Third World countries such as Egypt.

The film features two brothers who are identical twins, the first being bohemian and anti-establishment, and the second working in the service of the establishment. This device is used as a metaphor for the schism that afflicts intellectuals living under authoritarian regimes, and Chahine's use of it can still cause confusion for many even today, especially since an alleged murder committed by one of the twin brothers against the other takes place in the film, though it is never really clear who has killed whom.

In 1973, Chahine took his anti-establishment sentiments one step further in The Sparrow, accusing the establishment with its rampant corruption of being the main reason behind the 1967 defeat. This radical anti-establishment mood persisted in Chahine's work until his last film, This is Chaos, released last year, which deals with corruption and police abuse in contemporary Egypt.

However, perhaps the most socially radical film of all those that Chahine produced is The Return of the Prodigal Son, which ends in a massacre. Members of the family in the film, representing authority, all die at each other's hands, leaving only the two young protagonists who manage to flee the scene in disgust at the family members' struggle for power.

As many critics have noted in the obituaries of Chahine that have appeared over the past week, his career was one of the boldest in Egyptian and Arab cinema, and for this alone, as well as for the influence he has exercised over generations of filmmakers, he will always be remembered.

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