Youssef Chahine, the life-world of film

Linked with Youssef Chahine alias yousef shaheen – Egypt (1926 – 2008);

Published on openDemocracy, by Tarek Osman, July 29, 2008.

A great filmmaker of Alexandria and Egypt portrayed his country with a singular, passionate vision that remained constant in face of criticism and adulation alike. Tarek Osman pays tribute to Youssef Chahine …

… Chahine’s response was characteristic. He responded to the deprecation of critics and journalists as he did to international success and applause: by continuing to make films. The man from Alexandria refused to be distracted either by word-fights or bouquets. He remained faithful to the wellspring of his art, his city’s and his country’s woes and pains.

His later films showed this consistency of vision, in their depiction of the horrors of corruption, the abuse of power and the degeneration of morals. The title of his last film was Heya fawda (It’s Chaos). For more than half a century, Chahine’s maintained his connection with the Egyptian street, the deep source of his identity. At the end of a two-minute standing ovation at the Louis Lumière theatre in Cannes when he was awarded a special career-achievement prize at the fiftieth anniversary of the film festival, Chahine thanked the film’s prize committee; when the presenter asked him to speak about the man behind the director, he said: Ana iskandarani (I am an Alexandrian).

The clear vision:

Youssef Chahine’s work had features in common with that of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Bernardo Bertolucci. He had Allen’s fascination with the individual person: the everyday Egyptian in the village, the Euro-Egyptian in Alexandria or the old central Cairene districts – and very much with himself, too. He also shared Allen inexhaustible connection with a single place, in his case Alexandria rather than New York (”more and more of Alexandria”, as he used to say).

Chahine shared too Scorsese’s desire to plunge into the dark, the difficult and the alienated. His characters were difficult, convoluted; usually symbols of his fascination with Egypt’s – and of course Alexandria’s – multiple currents: Pharaonic, Christian, Islamic, Arabic, and Mediterranean, all mixed together many times in colourful cocktails.

Chahine was as daring as Bertolucci. This is evident above all in his depiction of women. Hind Roustom in Bab al-Hadid, Naglaa Fathi in Iskenderiya leih, Nabila Abeid in Al-Akher, Yousra in Iskenderiya Kaman we Kaman – all these characters were sensual, life-loving, liberated, empowered women. Chahine was bold in showing real human beings living at the heart of history and their society. His Ibn Rushd (the Arabic name for the famed Arabic-Andalucian philosopher Averroes) in Al-Massir (Destiny) was a liberal, vivacious man; his Jameela bu Hereid (the Algerian freedom-fighter) was feminine, humble, earthly. His “ordinary” Egyptian was not some formulaic, made-noble stereotype; he or she was full of life – real and multidimensional, with rotten as well as good qualities.

Youssef Chahine is dead. Another of Egypt’s pillars of liberalism, another warden of Egypt’s Mediterranean face, disappears. His art will remain in the history of Arabic cinema, and more importantly in the consciousness of Egyptians; his name will be revered by artists and filmmakers for decades to come. Even more inspiringly, the man himself will be remembered as a talented Egyptian who had a clear vision of his country; and who promoted and persevered in that vision, despite the violent currents and swirling waves that surrounded him. Indeed, there is nothing nobler than a person who stands up in dedicated, constant affirmation of the art he or she creates and believes in. (full text).

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