Remembering Youssef Chahine
A three-day symposium at the Higher Council for Culture this week commemorated the life and work of the late Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, reports Rania Khallaf
Egypt's intellectuals came together at a three- day symposium held at the Higher Council for Culture (HCC) in Cairo this week to discuss the work of the late Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine. Limited for "administrative reasons" to writers and literary critics according to organiser Amina Zedan, the symposium aimed to provide a forum in which Chahine's contribution to Egyptian culture could be evaluated and his memory commemorated.
For the cinema critic Aly Abu Shady, who is also the HCC's Secretary-General, the aim of the symposium was to investigate Chahine's oeuvre through the eyes of writers and critics, since "for the last 50 years Chahine's work has been ripe material for writers on cinema," and it was felt that now was the time for wider discussion to take place.
According to Abu Shady, Chahine's The Emigrant (1994) and The Destiny (1997) are among the best representatives of the filmmaker's overall project. "Chahine's historical films express his vision of reality," Abu Shady said, adding that "Chahine's technique in general is to use the past as a way of deciphering the present." In well-known historical films such as Saladin and the Great Crusades and Adieu Bonaparte Chahine used history to reflect on present reality, he said.
"In The Emigrant, Chahine produced a film that can be easily read and one that reflects our reality even though it deals with Ancient Egypt and the revolt against the priests of Amun. This revolt is presented as a revolt against tyranny, and it indicates a parallel between religion and power in the past and in the present," Abu Shady said.
"When The Emigrant became the subject of a lawsuit in Egypt, this was another episode in Chahine's struggle against cultural regression," he said, something that also informed The Destiny. The latter film also portrays the fight against religious fanaticism, Abu Shady said, "something that does not belong to any particular religion or country. Chahine wanted to tell us that enemies of enlightenment can be found anywhere."
For activist Ahmed Bahaaeddin Shaaban, another speaker at the symposium, Chahine's career was that of an artist who brought together culture and politics. "The fact that Chahine was born in a cosmopolitan city like Alexandria gave him a special cultural perspective and a unique openness and acceptance of other cultures," Shaaban said.
Shaaban believes that "Chahine's life was his greatest film. His works cannot be looked at in the absence of his wider views and opinions, which made him a true rebel who refused all kinds of constraints."
Chahine had "dedicated his life to the defence of freedom and justice, which he considered vital for human development," Shaaban said. The song "It's still possible for wishes to come true" by the popular singer Mohammed Mounir in The Destiny is an expression of Chahine's own philosophy, he added.
Shaaban quoted Chahine -- "can ethics live in the face of corruption? I would rather be an extremist like Abu Suwailam in The Land and die for my principles than a conformist" -- also noting that Chahine was a leftist throughout his life and a keen participant in political movements like Kefaya. He had also supported earlier movements, like the left- wing Tagammu party and the Nasserist political movement Al-Karama.
For Cairo University professor of literature Abdel-Moniem Telema, Chahine had been important for the influence of his films outside Egypt. "Chahine's works surpassed their geographical limitations," Telema said. "They are well known in countries in the Far East and Latin America, as well as in Africa, where the cinema industry has been affected by Chahine's cinematic vision and his tendency towards experimentation both in technique and themes."
In another paper, critic Sherif El-Gayar dealt with the thematic development of Chahine's works, focusing on the defeat in the 1967 war with Israel as a demarcation point in his career.
"In The Choice, Chahine discussed the role of intellectuals in the 1967 defeat, affirming that it was society, and not the army, that had been defeated. The Choice also showed Chahine's preoccupation with the relationship between intellectuals and the ruling regime. The Land is another groundbreaking film produced in the aftermath of the 1967 defeat, while in The Sparrow Chahine discussed what he saw as the real reasons behind the defeat."
In her intervention at the symposium, novelist Salwa Bakr stressed Chahine's interest in depicting social issues in his films, and questioned the way Chahine had used history. "He was a leftist and an artist who took sides with the poor and the marginal, and who used history as a vehicle for expressing his own ideas. Historical films are neither records of a past incident or specific historical period, nor commercial fantasies. It is a genre that can raise real questions for the present."
In Adieu Bonaparte (1985), Bakr elaborated, Chahine was not producing a historical film. That film was a comment on a decade of the Open Door Policy, which had introduced new values to the country and had caused a re- examination of themes such as identity and the relationship with the Other. Co-written with scriptwriter and director Yousri Nasrallah, Adieu Bonaparte is one of Chahine's most confusing films, Bakr said.
"The film was not properly written, and it needed more research or further re-reading of the French invasion of Egypt in the late 18th century. The characters were superficial, and the film appeared as a kind of attempt at reconciliation with the Other. It is also notable that although the film was a French co-production, it did not raise much interest on the part of French intellectuals."
However, short-story writer and cinema critic Mohammed Rafee'a disagreed. "Chahine's historical films are part of his own vision of history. Adieu Bonaparte is a 'reproduction' of that period of history. Either you accept what Chahine is trying to do in the film, or you don't watch it," he said.
Towards the end of the symposium critic Ayman Bakr spoke for many in his view that Chahine is one of the pillars of contemporary Egyptian culture. "I used to wait for Chahine's films to appear," he said, since "each of them was unfailingly fresh, different and disturbing."
In Father Amin, his debut film, for example, Bakr said, Chahine expressed a kind of "existential agony evident in his merging of the worlds of the dead and the living. And in The Lady of the Train, the mother is both present and absent. The Choice represents this kind of agony at its peak."
Further highlights of the symposium included a screening of Chahine's documentary Cairo as Seen by Chahine and a final roundtable discussion of the director's impact on Egyptian life in general.
During this roundtable, political and cultural analysts such as Mohamed El-Sayed Said and Samia El-Sa'ati, and fiction writers such as Ibrahim Aslan and Hamdi Abu Goulail, agreed that Chahine had made a lasting contribution to Egyptian culture, from his first films in the 1950s until his death last month.