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Youssef Chahine: The Father of Egyptian Cinema

The late Egyptian provocateur and auteur Youssef Chahine, who died in 2008, is one of the most prolific and unique filmmakers in history. His colorful career, spanning almost five decades, is punctuated by over thirty films in widely diverse cinematic styles. His films tackle a myriad of social and political issues.

He explores Egypt's and his own history and identity through an array of historical and personal narratives in genres ranging from musicals, comedies, and political thrillers to rural dramas, historical epics, social protest films, documentaries and Bergmanesque psychological dramas [1].

Chahine is a fiercely independent director who is unapologetic about his liberal, secular and feminist political ethos, and these political themes often manifest in both subtle and crude ways in his films.

From his first film, Baba Amin, (Papa Amin, 1950), which he directed at the age of of twenty-four, to his most recent, Al-Masir, (Destiny, 1997), he has shown himself to be a committed artist with strong political, moral and ideological convictions. In this 1969 epic drama al-Ard (the Land), he explores the oppression of peasants under a feudal system.

Another one of his great films is Jamila al-Jaza'iriyya, (Jamila the Algerian, 1958), which is a multinational historical film about one of the most important figures in the history of Algeria. Here, Chahine is challenging himself by creating a film in a different political and social context than his own.

By creating this film, him and Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz challenged notions of the male hero by presenting a femme fatale revolutionary for audiences in the Middle East and North Africa.

One cannot ignore the political dimensions of Chahine's films. Indeed, when one analyzes the considerable literature available on culture, and more specifically on cinema, in Nasserist Egypt and beyond, there seems to exist an almost avowed and deliberate playing down of Chahine's role in Nasserism and Egyptian culture, politics and cinema afterwards.

The contemporary disconnect between Chahine, Nasser and Egyptian society is seen by contemporary academics as part and parcel due to Chahine's deviant and anti establishment status as a maverick director whose themes of cosmopolitanism, liberalism and homosexuality mark him out as an anti-regime figure in Middle Eastern and African society.

Chahine's work is often cited within a corpus of social and cultural concerns vis-a-vis the protracted struggle for Arab national self-determination and modernization. Chahine's electric filmography foreshadowed the upheavals that rocked the Middle East since the early 1990s and beyond — as well as times of war and civil strife whose fodder would be the hungry, the orphans, the workers, the peasants and the unemployed [3].

Since the 1990s, Chahine's cinematic adventures have tended to chronicle the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism among unemployed youth using it as a gateway to purpose and martyrdom. Many of Chahine's films document how radical Islam leads unemployed urban youth to channel their anger into reactionary religious and political obscurantism.

Chahine's filmography also attest to the intrinsic dilemmas generated by Arab national liberation — which include but are not limited too: social change, a love/hate relationship with the west, gendered and sexual relationships. All of these intrinsic dilemmas are all taking place in conjunction with Arab society's struggle to grapple with the prospects of modernity — and these struggles are omnipresent in Chahine's filmography.

Chahine's films function as agencies of modernist cultural practice through an exploration of their postcolonial narrative delineations of social inequalities, colonialism, capitalist globalization, ethnic and religious heterogeneity, non-normative sexuality, the Palestine question, the current anxieties associated with the rise of religious fundamentalism and their effects on contemporary societies in the MENA region.

Postcolonial subjectivities in Chahine's films, as embodied in their characters and themes, are often shaped through his modernist narrative and formal strategies. These films incorporate heterogeneous and multi-temporal cinematic models to present their subject matter; correlating popular and high art, contemporary and earlier history, and local and foreign perspectives.

Special attention is often given to exposing the many ways in which the politics of history, social agency and change intersect in society at large. Uniquely, Chahine's films' are animated by a unique twofold relationship with the traditions of both popular and art cinemas has been virtually unseen in the MENA region.

Chahine's 1958 film Bab al-Hadid (Cairo Station) is often considered to be his magnum opus. Despite this, it received negative reviews in Egypt upon its release. Even though the film later received rediscovery and acclaim, it is still a film that is hard to characterize. It is on the one hand not a Neo-realist or a revolutionary film — and the is due to a strong melodramatic streak and a startling psycho-sexual, rather than political focus [4].

The film is one that fearlessly bends genre conventions while exploring the kaleidoscope of a metropolis undergoing rapid sociological and political transformation. Cairo Station eloquently explores the history of Cairo, and of its central rail station, which serves as the claustrophobic epicenter of the story. This railway station is a site of constant motion, to and from the city, of youthful hope and, all too often, of shattered, and at times, demented dreams.

Chahine's eclectic filmography features highly noticeable and complex relationships that underline social dimensions. These relationships are especially omnipresent in his autobiographical trilogy that features three films — Iskindriyya Leh (Alexandria Why? 1978), Hadduta Masriyya (An Egyptian Tale, 1982), and Iskindriyya Kaman Wi Kaman (Alexandria, Again and Again, 1989).

These films have been hailed as his greatest and they give the audience rare insight into Chahine, his work and his mental space, as great films like Fellini's 8 1/2 would. The trilogy is a surreal exploration and presentation of Chahine's life between filmmaking and living — the trilogy features pastiche that includes Shakespeare and a staging of Anthony and Cleopatra.

The trilogy also features an Egyptian actors Union strike, and state-sponsored antiriot teams, between ancient dictators (Alexander the Great) and present ones; and between artists committed to art and artists committed to money. Another prominent theme in the trilogy is about the need to embrace ones inner three year old and not to repress memories, feelings and ambitions.

Chahine is Egypt's most prolific and recognized auteur, therefore, he is inalienably implicated in Otherness [5]. While throughly embedded in Egyptian and Islamic culture — Chahine is marked by his own situation as a Christian and the descendant of a Lebanese rather than Egyptian family.

Although he embraces Cairo and is thoroughly identified with it, he is indelibly a son of the city of his birth, the multicultural and traditionally Mediterranean city of Alexandria, a city equally noted for sensual excess and the ascetic exertions of its saints. It is a city at the crossroad of West and East, too easily accepting both and embracing neither.

It's a cultural melting pot that features sketches of ancient Egypt and Greece, and it has a Mediterranean flare that incorporates Greek, Spanish and Ottoman aesthetics. Historically, it has been a sight of religious tolerance between Copts, Jews and Muslims.

This cosmopolitan background intersects with Chahine's understanding of the character of the medieval philosopher Avveroes, the hero of his most recent medievalist film, Al Massir/Destiny (1997). The philosopher Avveroes engages in a multiethnic and cross cultural dialogue as does Chahine.

Like Chahine, the twelfth century philosopher engaged in the ongoing debate between faith and reason, which raged with equal ferocity amongst Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Particularly, Averroes responded to The Incoherence of the Philosophers, a defense of the faith by the revered philosopher Al-Ghazali. With his rebuttal of Al-Ghazali, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, Averroes aroused the animosity of of Ash'arites, Hanbalities, and Mu'tazilities.

While the details of the controversy are best left to specialists in post-Aristotelain Philosophy, the spirit of this debate tremendously excited Chahine, who meticulously found parallels between his situation and that of the philosopher whose devotion to his discipline led him into conflicts with an entrenched fundamentalist opposition.

In the highly iconic film Al Massir/Destiny, Chahine crafts a pop art, art house and intellectual crossover that is a masterclass musical of some sorts — and it illustrates the extent the coupling of philosophy with song and dance might work to contest oppressive state and religious power [6]. Song and dance is not simply window-dressing in the film; it represents defiance in the face of loss and defeat.

Chahine's eclectic filmography perfectly encapsulates the never ending ideological conflict between East and West, Reason and Dogmatism and Religion and Secularism. His films transcend their time and space, and they celebrate life, love and sex while criticizing corrupt globalism, religious fundamentalism and oriental authoritarianism.


[1] Chahine, Youssef, and Joseph Massad. "Art and Politics in the Cinema of Youssef Chahine."Journal of Palestine Studies 28, no. 2 (1999): 77-93.

[2] Wharton, Barrie. "Cultivating cultural change through cinema; Youssef Chahine and the creation of national identity in Nasser’s Egypt."Africana: A Journal of Ideas on Africa and the African Diaspora1 (2009).

[3] Khouri, Malek.The Arab National Project in Youssef Chahine's Cinema. American University in Cairo Press, 2010.

[4] Gordon, Joel. "Broken Heart of the City: Youssef Chahine’s Bab al-Hadid." (2012).

[5] Hoffman, Don. "Chahine’s Destiny: Prophetic Nostalgia and the other Middle Ages." In Race, Class, and Gender in “Medieval” Cinema, pp. 31-44. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2007.

[6] Finke, Laurie A., and Martin B. Shichtman. "Song, Dance, and the Politics of Fanaticism: Youssef Chahine’s Destiny."


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