Possibly The Best Egyptian Filmmaker: Youssef Chahine
Youssef Chahine (b. 1926 in Alexandria) is one the best Egyptian filmmakers you will never forget. Born into a Catholic family, he studied at the English-language Victoria College and then, for a year, at university in Alexandria. Further study of direction and acting at Pasadena Playhouse near Los Angeles. He was one of Egypt’s youngest directors at his debut in the 1950s, but rapidly established himself as one of the major figures in Egyptian cinema.
He became a key influence on the younger generation, winning the top prize, the Tanit d’or, at the second Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage (JCC) in Tunis in 1970. From the late 1970s, he has been one of the few Arab filmmakers to make openly autobiographical films.
Over Chahine’s long film career his proactive involvement in his society’s struggles during some of the most turbulent periods of contemporary Arab history has resulted in a body of work that illuminated the dynamics of the contemporary re-emergence of the Arab national project in the aftermath of Gamal Abd al-Nasser’s 1952 revolution in Egypt. Chahine’s work includes forty-four films and embodies a rich and critical survey of the social, political, and cultural history of Egypt and the Arab world in the twentieth century.
Chahine’s films foreshadowed the upheavals that rocked the Middle East since the early 1900s— times of war and civil strife whose fodder would be the hungry, the orphans, the workers, the peasants, and the unemployed. Since the 1990s his films tended to chronicle the rise of Islamic fundamentalism among unemployed urban youth channeling their anger into reactionary religious and political obscurantism. But his films also attest to the intrinsic dilemmas generated by Arab national liberation: social change, a love/hate relationship with the west, gendered and sexual relationships— all in conjunction with Arab society’s struggle to grapple with the prospects of modernity and modernization.
Though Egyptian cinema occupies a paramount position within contemporary Arab political and cultural discourse, the bulk of critical attention has traditionally been limited to very few filmmakers, such as Salah Abu Seif, but more attentively to Youssef Chahine. His films have consistently attracted the attention of film festivals and critics, and in 2001 the British Film Institute published Ibrahim Fawal’s Youssef Chahine— the first English-language book devoted to Chahine and his oeuvre— as part of their series on world directors. Fawal’s undertaking was an important breakthrough, representing the first attempt to present an Arab perspective on Chahine to a western readership.
While Fawal’s book positioned Chahine’s cinema as a cultural practice within a specific sociohistorical praxis, his was largely an auteurist approach that did not reflect on the ideological affectivities of the filmmaker’s work or contemplate the linkages between his thematic and formal strategies. As a result, Chahine’s films were approached in ways that minimized their ideological workings within specific moments in Arab history.
Chahine’s cinema both challenged and preserved traditional practices in Egyptian and Arab cinema. Much of this cinema’s history tends to confirm coalitionist, rather than independent, strategies and industrial cinematic practices. Historically, the term “Hollywood on the Nile” in reference to Egyptian cinema reflected at its extreme the appeal of a homogeneity within the Egyptian filmmaking industry as a normative form of cinematic expression; it also reflected the western tendency to marginalize national cinematic practices whose local appeal did not extend to Hollywood’s traditional audiences. In the case of Chahine’s cinema, the advocacy of alternative, oppositional modes and industrial strategies was also synonymous with a desire to appeal to a wider audience that is more familiar with traditional cinematic techniques and approaches.
While Chahine’s film practices have historically challenged the homogenizing accounts of local cinema, they simultaneously provided a space where diverse cinematic practices converged and interacted. In this way, Chahine’s cinema has been the site where consensual models of industrial growth and creative merit can be de-centered and where new affiliations can be forged. Even Chahine’s creation of his own film production company reflected a strategy that sought to articulate new dynamics of alternative filmmaking practices and connections. This allowed Chahine to maintain the financial basis necessary to attract and produce not only his own films, but also the work of new and non-traditional filmmakers and apprentices.
“As for recognition of my life’s work, I have to say that none of the 33 films I have directed to date has been easy to do. At first I had a hard time winning recognition and acceptance, and I owe a lot to foreign critics like Jean-Louis Bory, who organized screenings of my films at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. It was a way of paying tribute to the work being done in a country like Egypt, whose cinema was usually regarded with condescension rather than admiration. Many people in Europe thought that all we could do was make light comedies— with belly dancing scenes, obviously— though some of us were working hard and making more worthwhile films, oft en on shoestring budgets. That is why I feel I am sharing my prize with all the film-makers from poor countries who are still having great difficulty in making films in their own countries. “
Youssef Chahine commenting on receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Fift ieth Cannes Film Festival in 1997, UNESCO Courier, September 1997
Papa Amine / Bâbâ Amîn (1950)
Son of the Nile / Ibn al-Nîl (1951)
The Great Clown / al-Mouharrig al-kabîr (1952)
The Lady from the Train / Sayyidat al-qitâr (1952)
Women without Men / Nisâbilâ rigâl (1953)
Sky of Hell / Sirâ final-wâdî (1954)
The Demon of the Desert / Chaytân al-sahrâ (1954)
Black Waters / Sirâ fî-l-mînâ (1956)
Farewell My Love / Waddatu houbbaka (1956)
You Are My Love / Anta habîbî (1957)
Cairo Station / Bâb al-hadîd (1958)
Jamila the Algerian / Gamîlah (1958)
Forever Yours / Houbb îla alabad (1959)
In Your Hands / Bein îdek (1960)
A Lover’s Call / Nidâ al-oushaak (1960)
A Man in My Life / Ragoul fî hayâtî (1961)
Saladin / al-Nâsir Salah Eddine (1963)
Dawn of a New Day/Fagr Yom Guedid (1964)
The Ring Salesman/Biyaa El Khawatem (1965)
Golden Sands/Rimal min Dahab (1966)
The Feast of Mairun/Eid al Mairun (1967) (short film)
Those People of the Nile/Al Nas wal Nil (1968)
The Land/Al-Ard (1969)
The Choice/Al-Ekhtyiar (1970)
Salwa the Little Girl who Talks to Cows/Salwa al Fatah al Saghira allaty Tokalem el Abkar (1972) (short film)
The Sparrow/Al Asfur (1973)
Forward We Go/Intilak (1973)
Return of The Prodigal Son/Awdet el Ebn el Dal (1976)
Alexandria… Why?/Iskandariyah… lih?(1978)
An Egyptian Tale/Hadduta Misriya(1982)
Adieu Bonaparte/Wadaan Bonabart (1985)
The Sixth Day/Al-Yawm al-Sadis(1986)
Alexandria Again and Again/Iskandariyah Kaman wa Kaman(1989)
Cairo as Told by Chahin/Cairo Menawara Beahla (1991)
It’s Only a Step/Kolaha Khatouah (1998)
Silence, We’re Rolling/Sokoot Hansawwar(2001)
September, 11th (2002)
Alexandria-New York/Iskandariyah-New York (2004)
Is This Chaos..?/Heya Fawda..?(2007)
Sources: Dictionary of African Filmmakers, Film in the Middle East and North Africa : Creative Dissidence, Arab National Project in Youssef Chahine’s Cinema.