Dr Khalid Ali, SAFAR 2018 writer-in-residence, pays tribute to legendary director Youssef Chahine
Friday 27th July 2018 marks the tenth commemoration of the visionary Arab and international film maker, Youssef Chahine (25th January 1926- 27th July 2008). The list of honours that makes Chahine arguably the most influential Egyptian film director is a long one; an outstanding legacy that was crowned by a ‘Life time achievement award in Cannes Film Festival in 1997.
A versatile director of several film genres, he made dramas, comedies, musicals, historical epics as well as documentary films. Growing up in Cosmopolitan Alexandria in the 1930’s, he was exposed to different cultures and religions. Being a film lover from a young age, he followed his passion to study film in Pasadena, California. In 1950 he returned to Egypt to direct his first feature film ‘Baba Amin’ at the tender age of 23 years. His early films were social dramas in which he collaborated with popular stars of the time, like Faten Hamama, and Yehia Chahine. He had a keen eye for exceptional talent, and was credited for discovering Omar Sharif in ‘Sira fei al-wadi/A fight in the valley’ aka ‘The blazing sun’ in 1954. Continuing his exceptional skill in discovering fresh talent, he continued to offer major roles to new actors such as Mohsen Mohy Eldin, Hani Salama, and Khaled Al-Nabawy to mention a few.
Chahine’s courage in making films based on his life was an original movement in Arab cinema resulting in four autobiographical films; ‘Alexandria…Why?’ (1978), ‘An Egyptian Tale’ (1982), ‘Alexandria, Again and Forever’ (1989), and ‘Alexandria, New York’ (2004). Far from being a narcissist, his autobiographical films explored his own upbringing and stories of his family members as a backdrop while observing Egypt’s social, political and cultural landscape from 1926 till 2000. His films connected with international audience, while remaining true to their Egyptian origins.
Youssef Chahine’s The Land/Al-Ard (1969) will screen at CINÉ LUMIÈRE, Institut Français as part of SAFAR: A Literary Journey Through Arab Cinema, 13 – 18 September
‘The Land’ (Al-ard) released in 1969 is a master piece that portrayed the exploitation of Egyptian peasants (falaheen) by the elite through the story of Mohamed Abu Swelam (Mahmoud El-Meliguy) a poor but dignified peasant who stands up to social injustice till his last breath. Based on Abdel Rahman Al-sharqawi book ‘The Land’, Chahine was able to faithfully adapt a heart breaking epic that is still revered 50 years after its release. It regularly features in the top five of the best Arab films of all times. If a film was ever immortalised in cinema history because of one scene, then ‘The land’ will be in the ‘list of cinema classics’ for its closing scene with its melodic score and mighty impact.
Genuine film auteurs who experiment with film narrative are not always unanimously met with critical acclaim. And Youssef Chahine was no exception amongst film auteurs; some of his films were not warmly welcomed by some critics in Egypt and the Arab world. At some point he was labelled as ‘an austere director who keeps making incomprehensible films aimed at intellectuals’. ‘The Choice’ (1970) was dismissed upon its release as an exercise in alienating cinema audience.
Chahine was a great believer in adapting literary masterpieces into film; ‘The Sixth Day’ (1986) was adapted from Andree Chedid’s book of the same name. In this film he took the risk of offering the lead role of an Egyptian grandmother to Dalida, the French singer and actress. As a great fan of Gene Kelly and MGM musicals, his playful musical number in ‘The sixth day’ was a touching homage to ‘Singing in the rain’, and a testament to his exceptional flare in making musicals.
The Algerian fight for independence featured in ‘Jamila, the Algerian’ (1958), a film that chronicled the story of Jamila Bouhired the freedom fighter standing up to French colonisation. Reflecting on Arab’s distant history, Chahine made ‘Saladin, the victorious-Elnasser Salah Eldin’ in 1963 about the Crusaders war led by Richard Lion heart and the heroic resistance of the Arab army led by Elnasser Salah Eldin. Continuing his fascination with Arab history, he used the story of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in ‘Destiny’ (1997) to condemn the rise of religious extremism. His unapologetic support for freedom of speech resonated with international audience; I will always remember the ten-minute standing ovation for ‘Destiny’ in its UK premier in the London Film Festival (LFF) in 1997 in Odeon Leicester Square cinema.
The list of landmark films by Chahine is too long to cover in one article. He documented Egypt’s turbulent socio- political history through several films; the building of the Aswan Dam in ‘The people and the Nile’ (1972), corruption in the public sector in ‘The Sparrow’ (1974), and rejection of capitalist ideology in ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ (1976).
One must mention the diverse talent of Chahine as an actor too; his most celebrated performance as ‘Qinawi’ the sexually frustrated newspaper seller in ‘Cairo Station’ (1958). As ‘Qinawi’, Chahine embodies the character of a sexually frustrated downtrodden outsider who lusts after Hanooma (Hind Rostom).
A visionary film director, script writer, producer, and actor of significant impact in Arab and world cinema, Chahine will always be remembered for enabling Egyptian and Arab stories to be heard worldwide.
Dr Khalid Ali – Senior lecturer in Geriatrics in Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS)
Film and Media correspondent- Medical Humanities Journal – UK
Dr Khalid Ali, senior lecturer in Geriatrics and Stroke Medicine- Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS), UK, is also the editor for ‘The screening room’, the film reviews section in ‘Medical Humanities Journal’. His exposure to film in early childhood sparked a passion for world cinema. Since 2002, he reviewed films exploring healthcare issues.
Starting at the London Film Festival (LFF), his quest for ‘story telling in film and its link to physical and mental well-being’ has led him to participating in many more film festivals in Cannes, Dubai, Edinburgh, Egypt and Sudan. His interactions with inspirational film makers, humanitarians, philosophers, poets, and artists have been widely published in printed and online reviews and recorded interviews (podcasts) in European, American and African outlets.
Dr Khalid Ali is writer in residence for SAFAR: A Literary Journey Through Arab Cinema