Interwoven Stories of Life and Liminality: Youssef Chahine’s Semi-Autobiographical Alexandria…Why?
Review by Zoya Zia
With thanks to Ciné Lumière for tickets to the screening.
The screening took place on 10 September 2023.
This Sunday at Ciné Lumière, the Drama and Desire: The Films of Youssef Chahine season continued with Alexandria…Why. Curated by Elhum Shakerifar at the BFI, it showcases the filmography of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine. This film, in particular, resonates with the complicated ray of emotions associated with the end of summer. As the audience took shelter from the heat inside the cinema, they tuned into Alexandria…Why in its optimal format – on the big screen.
Released in 1979, Alexandria…Why is the first in a series of semi-autobiographical films where Chahine explores his upbringing and the forces that shaped his passion for film-making. As he infuses the main character, Yehia, with bits of himself, he carves an immersive story set in the backdrop of World War II and the British occupation of Egypt. Although the film is set in 1942 and came out decades ago, its core anti-war message and the lasting impacts of colonialism point to its relevance today. Communities ravaged by the violence of empire continue to face its afterlives, and young people like Yehia are caught somewhere in between, struggling to balance their dreams with reality.
Film is an escape for Yehia, an artistic practice where he can pour his passion. His friends may focus on romantic entanglements and going to parties, but he has a different path. Although his middle class family expects him to pursue a more traditional career, he has an undeniable gift for acting and performing. While war closes in around him, he is determined to make his way to the United States – increasingly against the odds.
Yehia is just one character within a larger ensemble cast, all of which navigate different parts of society in Alexandria in the context of violence. The divides of class, religion, nationality, gender and allegiance all come to the surface, setting various plots into motion. For example, a well-off Egyptian man kidnaps a young British soldier with the intention of killing him. However, he finds that he cannot bring himself to pull the trigger, and ends up developing feelings for him. Another emotive relationship is between a working-class Muslim man and a wealthy Jewish girl who fall in love, have a child out of wedlock and struggle to stay together.
Perhaps more humorously but equally compelling, a group of Egyptian men brainstorm ways to rid their city of the British occupation. They plan to assassinate Winston Churchill, and this part of the film speaks to the inevitably political nature of the moment at hand, pushing characters to constantly acknowledge that their plans are tempered by the lens of conflict. Whether they are dreaming of Hollywood, of love or revolution, they must reckon with a city in transition.
As the film concluded at Ciné Lumière, it invited viewers to follow Yehia to the subsequent films and consider the interconnections between us. The interwoven stories in Alexandria…Why are all related in some way and embody the push and pull of the ocean near the city.
Drama and Desire: The Films of Youssef Chahine season is curated by Elhum Shakerifar at BFI, in cultural partnership with Ciné Lumière and SAFAR Film Festival and continues at Ciné Lumière until mid-October:
Alexandria Trilogy: An Egyptian Story (17-19 September)
Alexandria Trilogy: Alexandria Again & Forever (24 September – 3 October)
Adieu Bonaparte (8-10 October)