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

The French connection

In his later years Youssef Chahine enjoyed stalwart support from France, drawing attention to the Franco-Egyptian thread in his later films and his cosmopolitan sympathies, writes David Tresilian in Paris

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In an official statement published earlier this week, French president Nicolas Sarkozy praised the Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, who died on Sunday, for what Sarkozy described as his "fervent defense of freedom of expression and more generally of individual and collective freedoms."

Chahine, Sarkozy's statement read, had been concerned in his films throughout his life "to denounce censorship, fanaticism and fundamentalism." As an independent intellectual as well as a filmmaker, Chahine had been "a fervent defender of the mixing of cultures." While he had been "very much attached to Egypt," he had also been "open to the universal."

Sarkozy's remarks were widely reported in the French press, including in Le Monde, which reproduced a picture of Chahine receiving his lifetime achievement award at the Cannes film festival in 1997 on its front page. They also draw attention once again to the close relationship Chahine enjoyed in later years with the French film industry and with the French cinema-going public.

While Chahine's films, sometimes seen as appealing mostly to an intellectual elite, were not always popular with mass audiences in Egypt, and always had an at best limited distribution abroad, the one country where this was not the case was France, which proved to be a remarkably stalwart ally.

Not only did Chahine's later films enjoy French production and funding, but they also enjoyed wide exposure in France, where the system of film distribution that in many other countries favours mostly American films has not yet made irreversible inroads.

While in much of Britain and the United States it is almost impossible to see a "foreign film," meaning any film not in English, outside smaller "art-house" cinemas in larger population centres or at film festivals, this is not the case in France, where Chahine's films have enjoyed wide release in the country's cinemas and are regularly shown on television.

Part of the reason for this might be found in the collaboration Chahine enjoyed in his later career with the the indefatigible French film producer Humbert Balsan, who produced eight of Chahine's later films from Adieu Bonaparte in 1985 to Alexandrie....New York in 2004, the latter being the last in Chahine's autobiographical quartet that commenced in 1978 with Alexandria... Why?

Films by Chahine produced by Balsan's Paris-based production company Ognon Films thus include many of the director's best- known later films, including the Alexandria pictures with which he is probably most associated internationally, and the films of the 1990s, including The Emigrant, Destiny and The Other, that touch on social and political themes, sometimes in the guise of historical allegory.

The first of these films, released in 1995, draws upon the biblical story of Joseph, and it was temporarily banned in Egypt as a result of allegations of blasphemy. In Destiny (1997), Chahine used the story of the 12th-century Andalusian philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd) as a way of criticising religious fundamentalism, while in T he Other (1999) he left historical allegory behind to make a film that focuses on contemporary social and political problems.

Chahine's last film, Chaos (2007), codirected by Khaled Youssef and similarly politically engaged, is also a French- Egyptian co-production, as are films such as Silence....We're Rolling (2001) and The Sixth Day (1986) in which Chahine explored his interest in music and spectacle, the latter film adapted from a novel by Franco-Egyptian writer Andrée Chedid and starring the Egyptian-born French singer Dalida.

While Chahine expressed himself easily in French and felt at ease in French culture, being invited to show his work at Cannes as early as 1951 when he showed his second film The Son of the Nile, he was at least as much at home in the United States, since it was in California that he first studied acting and directing and developed the taste for American musicals that returns in Egyptian form in his later films.

However, it was France rather than America that supported Chahine's work, mostly through the initiative of Humbert Balsan, who also produced Palestinian director Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention in 2002, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes, Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah's Summer Thefts (1985), On Boys, Girls and the Veil (1995) and Gate of the Sun (2004), and Lebanese director Maroun Bagdadi's The Veiled Man (1987), in addition to the films produced with Chahine.

Balsan, for a time chairman of the Berlin-based European Film Academy and known as a "champion of Arab film," showed a career-long commitment to Arab filmmakers, and argued for alternatives to the Hollywood model of commercial film through his support for the work of independent filmmakers in France and elsewhere.

In the 1990s, particularly after the release of his controversial 1997 film Destiny, the first of his films to achieve wide distribution in the United States, Chahine became better known to a large international audience, something underlined by his lifetime achievement award at Cannes in the same year.

Over the years, I encountered Youssef Chahine several times, both during remarks he made about his work at showings of his films in New York in the 1990s, or on various occasions when he spoke to audiences in France.

However, the encounter that sticks most in the memory was when he was kind enough to arrange a private showing of his short film Cairo, as Told by Chahine at his office in Cairo in 1991.There were two or three of us, and, having set up the video and started the film, Chahine disappeared upstairs to let us watch it, without, he said, any further interruptions from him.

When he reemerged a short time later, he seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say, listening patiently to our praise for this concise, beautifully made film.

"It's a jewel," he said, nodding vigorously. "A little jewel."

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