This is an introduction to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival's retrospective, A Tribute to Youseff Chahine. An abridged version of this text will be published in the festival catalog.
In a filmography overflowing with countless grandstanding moments, a quiet moment stands out in Youssef Chahine’s formative career period: a sultry soda vendor is dragged to a motionless train by a group of young hipsters playing rock ‘n’ roll. She starts dancing in abandon, letting go and losing the little inhibitions she may have had. A crippling newspaper seller, played by Chahine himself, slowly approaches the train cabin window, gazing at the dancing vendor. His gaze interrupts her dancing when they lock eyes. A brief look of shame, of awkwardness, crosses her face. His eyes are dismayingly blank. She offers him a bottle of soda. He takes it. She smiles. He smiles back. She resumes her frantic dancing; he does a little silly dance in the bustling station.
The scene lasts for only four minutes. No word is spoken; no tangible dramatic rationale is given. It’s a fleeting moment of simple human interaction, at once modest in its intention, yet penetrating in the insight it provides for both central characters. And in 1958, it was unlike anything Egyptian cinema has seen at the time; a moment of disarming emotional nakedness; a moment of pure cinema untarnished by the mandatory social filters forced upon Egyptian filmmakers of the time.
The film was Cairo Station (1952), the most well-known, most celebrated Arab movie in history; the film that would establish Chahine as the Arab world and Africa’s greatest cinematic storyteller for more than half a century.
For casual acquaintances of Arab cinema, Cairo Station has been the one movie they associate Chahine, and by default Arab cinema, with; but there’s so much more to Chahine’s large oeuvre than Cairo Station would suggest; a colorful, diverse, and highly unpredictable body of work encompassing clashing politics; multitude of genres; and different aesthetics. Chahine was never a mere purveyor of neo-realism: he was one of the most versatile filmmakers in the medium’s history; and possibly the most controversial in his home country.
Born in 1926 to a middle-class family of Greek and Lebanese origins in Alexandria, Chahine was born in the heart of the region’s most cosmopolitan city, at the outset of the two world wars. Alexandria was not never the idyllic utopia many made it to be; it was, however, an open, secular society where people from different faiths and creeds lived harmoniously side by side, at least in the beginning of the 20th century. Alexandria would prove to be a cornerstone of Chahine’s Egyptianess; an identity informed by different cultures, different faiths, and different ideologies; an identity informed by a near-naive belief in a tolerant Egypt that once was, and that would soon vanish.
Chahine was schooled in Victoria College, the most prestigious school in the region whose alumni included King Simeon of Bulgaria and Prince Abdullah of Iraq. From an early age, he developed his passion for theater, cinema, and Shakespeare. After spending one year in the University of Alexandria, he decided to study acting at California’s Pasadena Playhouse, only to shortly turn to directing.
After graduating in 1948, he returned back to Egypt with a script titled Ibn el-Nil (Son of the Nile) that was turned down by nearly all executives at the time.
After assisting a number of Italian documentarians and DOPs in the following year, Chahine was then introduced to Zeyad Film Productions which, given his meagre salary at the time, agreed to bankroll a different story, but insisted on hiring scriptwriters Hussein Helmy and Ali El Zorkani to pen the scenario and dialogue. The result was Baba Amin (Daddy Amin), Chahine 1950 debut which utilized a frivolous format to break multiple rules—a tendency that Chahine would adhere to in subsequent decades.
In his first film, Chahine displayed a natural knack for traversing between different genres, blending fantasy, family drama, and social commentary in a story about a family patriarch who gets duped into a shady investment only to die and begins to observe the aftermath of his actions on his family from the afterlife. Starring veteran actor, Hussien Riad, and screen legend, Faten Hamama, Daddy Amin was the rare Egyptian production to cast an older character actor in the lead. It was also the first Egyptian film to be set in the afterlife, a religious taboo at the time. The original ending of the film was deemed too contentious at the time, forcing Chahine to change it in what would become the first of many standoffs with the censorship.
Chahine’s early works remain under-seen both in the Arab World and the world at large. Many observers have insouciantly dismissed them as insubstantial works of entertainment that are lacking when compared to his more personal and overtly political films. These comments miss one major facet of Chahine’s cinema: its eagerness to entertain, and in the early works, Chahine would hone his skills to transpire as the supreme entertainer he would soon become.
Three of his early films are prime examples; a wild amalgam of modes and sensations that shows a different Chahine from the international auteur most critics and scholars know; a playful, cheeky master of ceremonies experimenting with different genres and perfecting his craft. Shaytan al-sahraa (Devil of the Desert) was his first period piece; an action-packed desert adventure with political subtext that would act as precursor to his subsequent expansive historical epics. “Wadda't hubbak” (Farewell My Love, 1956), his second foray into musicals after 1952’s “Sayedet al-qittar” (Lady of the Train), blends melodrama and romance with song and dance numbers in an inimitable reinvention of the genre. The film featured two of Egypt’s most beloved singer-actors: Farid El Attrach and Shadia. Chahine would reteam the pair in Enta habiby (My One and Only Love, 1957), an uproarious musical that stands out as Chahine’s most accomplished and funniest comedy.
All three films contain different temperaments, different mise-en-scènes, and different set of sentiments. All are revisionist genre films; skillfully made entertainments constructed under Hollywood templates, yet are very Egyptian in both style and content. Long unseen and unstudied, they are the missing pieces of the Chahine story; the studio productions where many of the master’s themes, artistry and style were born and developed.
Chahine’s reputation as an international auteur was established early on; his sophomore effort, Ibn el nil (Son of the Nile, 1951) was selected in the feature competition of the Cannes Film Festival in 1952, commencing a long association with the world’s biggest film fest. Chahine earned his second competition nominee two years later with Siraa fil-wadi (The Blazing Sun), his first work to engage with the socio-political climate of the time. A star-crossed romance between the daughter of a wealthy landowner and the engineer son of a peasant set in sugarcane plantations, The Blazing Sun marked the screen debut of screen legend, Omar Sharif, who along with his co-star and future wife, Hamama, would become Arab cinema’s most beloved couple.
Up until that point, Chahine, like most directors of his generation, worked in isolation from the political climate of the time; a position fostered by the British-backed monarchy that discouraged any criticism or direct engagement of the reality at hand. With The Blazing Sun, which was made shortly after the 1952 revolution that transformed Egypt from a monarchy to a republic, Chahine would begin a long odyssey in chronicling the political and social reality of post-revolution Egypt. In many of the early works, The Blazing Sun and Farewell My Love included, Chahine’s belief and alliance with the revolution and the then president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, were absolute. His siding with the working class, as witnessed in Sun, and blatant championing of the army, as displayed in Love, reflected the general buoyant sentiment of a nation enjoying limitless possibilities; a united nation living the socialist dream.
No other film of Chahine’s carried this new-found national pride than Al-Naser Salah al-Din (Saladin, 1963), a swashbuckler spectacle about the eponymous 12th Century Sultan of Egypt who protected Jerusalem from the third crusades. Abundant with historical inaccuracies that were widely condemned, Saladin—which was scripted by Naguib Mahfouz, the sole Arab Novel Prize winner in literature—is an obvious pan-Arabism propaganda where the Ayyubid dynasty founder is cast as a stand-in for Nasser while the crusaders double as the newly-established state of Israel. History, however, is swept under the elaborate action sequences and cinema-scope-shot wide-screen vistas in what was Chahine’s first film in color. The brilliantly choreographed battle sequences remain the biggest, most extensive in Arab film history; unrivaled by anything that came before or after it. Visually, this was Chahine at top of his game; a confident artist using broad brushstrokes in painting boundless canvases that felt bigger than life.
Chahine was an unabashedly maximalist; even Cairo Station, for all its remarkable restrain and piercing moments of quietness, is abundant with searing emotions and high drama. Chahine was, after all, a master of melodrama – that inherently Egyptian genre that allowed for different storytelling to seamlessly mesh together in coherent if multilayered forms.
And while rarely caving in to conventions, Chahine tackled that infamous ingredient of melodrama—the sacrificial woman/mother—head-on in Fagr yom gedid (Dawn of a New Day, 1965), a Douglas Sirk-like romance between a former aristocrat and a younger working-class college student. Underneath the seeming condemnation of the dying feudal class and the celebration of the new socialist Egypt lies a less harmonious view of a country still divided more than a decade after the revolution. The role of sacrificial mother is subverted as Chahine directs his lens towards the causalities of the revolution whose sacrifices were not instigated by patriotic awakening, or even self-fulfillment in the new equal Egypt, but by the disarray and confusion generated in its aftermath.
The small scale of the production allowed for a more intimate use of color. While nowhere as garish as Saladin, colors in Dawn are equally expressive, and far more emotive; indicative of Chahine’s evolving palette which would swell with every single succeeding film.
Two years after the release of Dawn, Egypt would suffer its military defeat in the Six Day War, and Chahine’s unquestionable faith in Nasser would soon dissipate. He would briefly move to Beirut, direct a series of films channeling the sense of loss engulfing the Egyptian society, including The Sparrow, which was initially banned and only released after Nasser’s death. By the time Egypt regained Sinai and earned victory in 1973’s Yom Kippur War, his faith in the political establishment and pan-Arabism would completely vanish.
No other film carried Chahine’s new-found pessimism towards Arab unity than Awdat al-ibn al dal (Return of the Prodigal Son, 1976). Loosely based on André Gide’s book of the same name, this ensemble drama reimagines the Arab World as a fractured family, waiting for a savior who fails to unite them. A musical tragedy of sorts, Prodigal Son is one of Chahine’s most pessimistic works; a searing family saga of a people waking up from a long slumber to find themselves thrust in the middle of a nightmare.
Aesthetically, two of Chahine’s signature hallmarks found their full-expression in Prodigal Son: the great sense of physicality, or the close attention to the human body; and the stylistic, mannerist dialogue. By then, the brief dabbling with neo-realism of Cairo Station would have no trace, replaced by animated stylization that felt close to Bollywood than the sentimental Italian melodramas his work was constantly compared to.
Politically, it marked the end of Chahine’s political idealism. For most of his career, Chahine strived to define his relationship with the system; with the Sadat reign, the parameters and nature of this relationship became clear: this was a dictatorship where the individual has no say.
By the late ‘70ies, the utopian Egypt of Chahine’s youth no long existed. From the ashes arose a capitalistic, conservatively homogenous society run by the army and the nouveau riche. Alienated and disillusioned, Chahine ventured to create a series of autobiographical movies meditating not only on art and family, but on the Egypt that once was.
The first, and best, of the four autobiographical films was Eskanderija... lih? (Alexandria…Why?), a sprawling star-studded ensemble drama tracing Chahine’s teenage years in Alexandria in the middle of World War II. Seeping with nostalgia over the cosmopolitan Alexandria of his childhood, this is Chahine’s most affectionate and warmest film; a reaffirmation of his Egyptian identity as well as a love letter to the Hollywood of his childhood. Alexandria is a memento mori to a city and country changing beyond recognition; a reconstruction of memory of what was lost on the way to foreign liberation.
It also contained another hallmark of Chahine’s that was deliberately overlooked in his home country. It featured one of the most sympathetic, most well-rounded gay characters in Egyptian cinema at the time. In Alexandria and later works, Chahine treats queerness in a nonchalant fashion, breaking away with decades of the vilification and demonization. Several facets of queerness would be explored in later in movies, be it in its impact on traditional family structure, or in art-creation.
In the subsequent quarter of a century, Chahine would turn more inward with the next installment of his autobiographical quadrilogy, while exploring his relationship with the western other, along with the legacy of Egyptian and Arab histories.
A halt from these largely political dissertations—the majority of which were French co-productions—arrived in 1986 with Al-yom al-sadis (The Sixth Day), the most atypical work in Chahine’s late-career period. Based on a novel of the same name by French- Egyptian writer, Andrée Chedid; the film is set 1947 during the outbreak of cholera. A grandmother tries to save her grandchild from the fatal epidemic, while fending off the advances of a young monkey trainer.
Chahine’s filmography is abundant with copious collaborations with iconic female singers, from Laila Mourad in Lady of the Train and Shadia in Farewell My Love and My One and Only Love to Fairouz in The Rings Seller and Latifa in Silence, We’re Rolling. The most celebrated of these diverse collaborations is the one he embarked on with legendary French-Egyptian chanteuse, Dalida, in The Sixth Day, which was released one year before she committed suicide. The specter of Dalida’s tragic fate continues to haunt her last screen performance, imbuing this elusive and rich meditation on death and the damaging consequence of colonialization with an aura of melancholy.
A significant part of Chahine’s work is centered on the individual futile battle against the unconquerable forces of fate—a theme integral to the ethos of the melodrama genre. Various tools are used to slow down or offset this inevitability of death: love, sex and, most imperative of all, cinema. In The Sixth Day, various references to Hollywood and the movies are made, acting as temporary respite before the unavoidable arrival of the grim reaper.
This is possibly Chahine’s greatest legacy. In career spanning more than half a century and nearly 40 films, the Arab world’s most influential filmmaker produced angry pieces of resistance against tyranny, against fanaticism, and against death itself.
The retrospective we present in Karlovy Vary—the biggest of its kind to be featured in any film festival—is a comprehensive introduction to a dizzyingly eclectic, uncategorizable career. This is certainly not the last word of Chahine whose work remains generously open to multiple interpretations and analyses, but rather a reverential tribute to one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.