The Spat-on Messenger: Youssef Chahine in Conversation with Tom Luddy

Published for the first time: A 1978 interview between Youssef Chahine and Tom Luddy that took place at the Pacific Film Archive.
Ehsan Khoshbakht

The series Youssef Chahine: Son of the Nile is showing on MUBI starting September 16, 2021 in most countries.

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Bologna, June 2019. I spotted an Arab name on the badge of the hotel's night porter. When I asked, he turned out to be one—an Egyptian. I mentioned to him that Youssef Chahine's films would be playing in Bologna for the next few days. His face lit up. A floodgate of emotions, about Egypt, his past, and cinema opened, temporarily drowned him in nostalgia, passion and regret. He shared stories of Chahine, of his beloved Alexandria. He even cursed the extra who had forgotten to remove his wristwatch during the battle scene of Salah Eddin (a film about the Crusade, from the Arabs' point of view). According to him, by doing so he had prevented the film from entering the Oscar competition.

Very few directors can make that impact on their people, endowing them with a sense of pride and identity. Chahine's generosity with emotions is contagious. In reaction to a Chahine film, it is as legit to dance or holler as it is to write an essay. In Bologna the scholar and musician Amal Guermazi decided to sing, as her introduction to Al Ard.

Sometimes effortlessly Ophulsian (especially in the '70s, in the fluidity of his carousel-like narratives) and sometimes dialectically Chaplinesque, Chahine brought together the seemingly irreconcilable worlds existing in 20th-century Egypt and gave them a sense of harmony. There was a wise calmness about him. He had every reason to be angry, but instead he gave a sad smile which became the Chahine cinema.

Aligned with Pan-Arabic sentiments, he looked beyond Egypt, too. However, his Algeria-set Djamilah (1958) is nearly impossible to see in a cinema. Telling the story of the Algerian Independence War fighter Djamila Bouhired, it has been absent from recent Chahine retrospectives. It's an anti-French film, in exactly the same manner that hundreds of western films, including some French ones, have been anti-Arab. But it's more than just tit-for-tat—it is a celebration of change in the Arab world, done in the best of Hollywood traditions which Chahine adored. Find the film and show it! (For the Chahine tribute at Il Cinema Ritrovato, we tracked down a print in Albania but the subtitles were so big, covering almost half the screen, in the process turning them into Godardian onscreen statements.)

The interview that you are about to read is from when Chahine's latest film (at the time), Return of the Prodigal Son (1978), was out in Lebanon and France and soon to be released in Egypt. Conducted by Tom Luddy, another man whose job is to bring people together under the sign of the nation of cinema, it was held at the Pacific Film Archive during the interval between the screenings of Cairo Station and Al Ard on August 23, 1978. Chahine, in his typically passionate defense of Egyptian cinema, goes beyond discussing the two films and gives a vivid snapshot of the rebirth of North African cinemas in the 1970s.

In my transcription and editing, I have tried to stay faithful to the informal nature of the conversation, as well as Chahine's speech. By the way, the night porter and his wife came to see Alexandria... Why?

— Ehsan Khoshbakht

TOM LUDDY: Who wrote the film Cairo Station [Bāb al-Ḥadīd, 1958]?

YOUSSEF CHAHINE: I did. I always write with somebody. It was [based on] a short story from which we made that screenplay. But I normally write myself, especially after 1967. This one was before that [and I] participated in writing maybe up to 50 percent [of the script]. After that I rather write my own.

LUDDY: Were there any films made before that in Egypt which had that degree of realism?

CHAHINE: No, as a matter of fact it was quite a surprise. I had started with other types of films that were rather more romantic [including] the first film in which Omar Sharif had acted—and he was only 22 then—that was called The Blazing Sun [Ṣira' Fī al-Wādī, 1954]. It was, let's say fifty percent realistic, but never anyone had [gone] to that extent.

LUDDY: And also to describe that kind of social milieu that was not exactly a studio set with actors and unrealistic—Was that depicted in other Egyptian films before that?

CHAHINE: I can't say that I'm the first one to have started making films that were rather socially-oriented. There was Kamal Selim a very long time ago [in the 30s and 40s]. He was one of the first communists that we had in Egypt, or let's say a very left socialist. And he had started a picture called El azima [The Will, 1939]. The tradition was continued by another director called Salah Abu Seif who's still at it and he's a very good director that we have back home. He did many, many movies not with the actuality or the actual strength of Kamal Selim [but] slightly more romantic. But he also talks about the everyday person and he has gone away from the tradition that most of us have been influenced by which is the American film of which we do about a hundred copies every year. One of our greatest problems is not the possibility of making a film or not [but rather] how to make a film that you want to do and not a film that people have gotten used to see. I mean they got used to see the Esther Williams tradition and we have continued it through the last 30 years and it's a very fascinating tradition—I mean you get smoke and water and fire and a lot of things and the very good-looking girl—but there are other problems and now we're talking about them. And as I told you there was a tradition but it was very little. Now it's a little bit more.

LUDDY: [repeating the question from the audience]: How was this film received when it first came out in Egypt?

CHAHINE: They spat in my face on the opening night, and I was sick for four years after it.

LUDDY: Was it widely shown in Egypt at that time? Was it released like a normal film?

CHAHINE: Yes, I didn't get censorship trouble at the beginning and then the government actually presented it at the Berlin [Film] Festival and there it did pretty well but on and off they kept on holding it back because they said "come on, are we going to show Egypt with people wearing djellaba?" and I had to re-convince them that what was really interesting for [other] people to know that we could see our own problems.

LUDDY: Was it a success with the public?

CHAHINE: At the very beginning, they were very surprised. There was a definite surprise. And now it's a classic, almost. But there is something here that I may give you, some kind of technical information: It went on television, and I don't know maybe because the subject was rather touchy for the everyday man; he would not want to see what was happening there; I mean he would not want to identify himself with the main character [when] there are people around him [in a movie theatre] but maybe when he was alone at home he could even tell the family to go away and he'd have a look at it, the rapport was much stronger. Sometimes I wonder why. I did many other movies, some of them quite successful and some of them quite important, but if you ask people in Egypt about me, they talk about Cairo Station. It seems to have touched something very deep in them, something that people did not talk about. The sexual problem was never described, the sexual repression through poverty and through a lot of things. It was never as clearly described as in this one, I think.

LUDDY: Was the film shown throughout the Arab world?

CHAHINE: Yes, and again throughout the Arab world I think it's one of the favorites, after 20 years.

LUDDY: How much did the film cost and when you originally conceived the film did you have trouble getting money to make this kind of film?

CHAHINE: I had a strange producer for whom I had done The Blazing Sun and it had brought in a lot of money, and it was a very new trend. As a matter of fact, he had the courage of telling me to play the part [Qinawi in Cairo Station]. And we did it at that time about half of what an Egyptian picture would cost. I told him I would do it with half the money so he had the courage to go all the way. It didn't stop him from demanding that I should get two stars like the girl [Hind Rostom] who was quite a star at the time. But the biggest star was the big boy [Farid Shawqi], the fellow who carries the badge and he's a huge star, and probably in the publicity that we did, I think we were a little bit wrong, because I was shy and young to say that "I'm playing the leading part and you put his name very big, and he is known for a certain type of film, like [those] 'Esther Williams films', and if you go and see Esther Williams playing a part that Greta Garbo should do, [that makes the audience] unhappy." And when they saw him not having the principal part and not a picture about people knocking people around, they got a bit angry at the beginning. It was much later that they did accept. But the film was done rather cheaply, even for that time.

LUDDY: Why did you stop acting after this film? You were just so wonderful in it.

CHAHINE: Well, thanks, but I thought I had a lot of things to say as a director. As an actor you sit there and wait until a good part comes to you or you become what's called a star or a type actor and I didn't want that. I knew I liked all kinds of drama even in television or in theatre, not want to give up a career of being there all the time. I knew that to get such difficult and good parts is not easy. I didn't want to repeat that part again. Later on, after the 1967 War [with Israel], I was politicized and I started understanding even better the choice that I had done spontaneously, which is to have a means of expressing myself and certainly now I wouldn't want to go back to acting. But I'm quite happy being a director. In case a very good part comes along, I don't think I'll say no.

LUDDY: It seems that there's a powerful new movement of Arab cinema, films like Chronicle of the Years of Fire [1975], your recent films, Kafr Kasem [1975] and so on made a real impact. Could you discuss the current situation in Arab cinema and the trends that are present today?

CHAHINE: I'm glad to say as an Arab, as an Egyptian Arab, that the Egyptian cinema has stopped monopolizing the movie-making industry. We are getting very excellent films from Algeria of which the film that you mentioned happens not to be the best, it's [also] the biggest which was able to take a prize [Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival]. But if you hear about the film called Omar Gatlato [by Merzak Allouache, 1976] I think you should see it and there's The Charbonnier  [by Mohamed Bouamari, 1973] which is also an excellent movie. Kafr Kasem [by Borhane Alaouié, 1975] came from a Lebanese boy who worked through Syria. Some attempts are being done in Iraq now and they're going towards some positive steps. I can't say that they've succeeded because sometimes they imitate what's bad in us and not what's good in us. Souheil Ben-Barka from Morocco did some very good movies. And this is the Arab world. And now the black world: you've known Ousmane Sembène, he does pictures in Senegal and they're really international. They're wonderful pictures, full of humor. He's a very good writer. Also some people in Ivory Coast have made pictures. There are pictures being done all over Africa. I mean this is what's good. I must take the opportunity that I'm here on stage to say not just "thank you, okay, you're looking at our movies" but it is an opportunity for the American public and this did not happen before. I came here ten times with movies. I came with this movie a long time ago I even took a prize at something called the Boston Festival. It was a tiny little thing but to the rest of America I would tell "okay, take the print for free, I just want to see my movie shown here" because, all right, I can't make money out of it, but at least I want the people to see it. I've studied in this country and I love a lot of people in it and I want them to see that we are human beings that we can discuss [issues]; we can be even movie-makers. This did not happen for a very long time and it was a very painful thing because it's as if someone wants to give you a message to make your own decisions and not to impress on you or anything, and then that message just could not be listened to because of the fantastic pressure from what we used to call the huge distributors. They're so huge that sometimes I can't give my own message in Cairo because the cinemas used to be owned by a very big, monopolistic company. Now it's so much better to know that I was able to show the film in Los Angeles. You have seen it tonight and some other people…

LUDDY: We have shown it a couple of times before.

CHAHINE: And I feel that maybe now we are able to communicate to you a few things. Maybe now you are not only listening to the official spokesman that talk on a special level but you are also living with the people who are living over there, at least for an hour or two at every showing.

LUDDY: Looking back at this film, do you have any criticisms of it? [The person who is asking the question] is suggesting that perhaps you might consider that the film doesn't describe the class struggle and imperialist aspects of the class struggle well enough and that it individualizes the problem and psychologizes it rather than showing it in a more clear, didactic, analytical way?

CHAHINE:  I never pretended to know everything about everything from the very beginning. Spontaneously, I was "with the people" even from my very first picture, and the second one, even though the first and second pictures were based on American plays. One was the total American play that had a run in Broadway and the second one was called the River Boy, written by Grant Marshall, about  an American boy on the Mississippi [which in my film] became a boy on the Nile. I loved people. I loved simple people. I didn't see why we had so few pictures about our peasants. So I just wanted to talk about them, and my love to them was just spontaneous. It took many more years and growth in age and character and knowledge to realize that at that time I love them only spontaneously and that's not enough. It's like today I know it's not enough to do a movie. I have to get it shown. I must show it to you. I must make tremendous efforts [on] the financial level. I had a small incident, maybe I must tell it to you. I have a picture called The Sparrow [Al Asfour, 1972] which will be shown here. At the given moment it was banned. It's a picture that was shown at the Cannes [Film] Festival in May 1973 and what I and the colleagues who have worked on the picture said was that "all right, in 1967 it's not the people of Egypt who lost the war it was the establishment" and that we had a feeling that we had to go on fighting, that the people and we are only describing what the people's feelings were, and we were convinced that the people would fight back at this humiliation that they received and had done nothing about it.

LUDDY: You were talking about The Sparrow and how it was in 1973, you showed it, and it was banned…

CHAHINE: The picture was banned and [released] about four months after we were really fighting. And again it was banned for some time. And then as we are very clever in Egypt, they showed it for three weeks and it was Ramadan [when cinema attendance figures are the lowest] and it was the excuse that it didn't have a longer run.

LUDDY: [A member of the audience] was bothered by the fact that the villain in the film Cairo Station was a cripple and it's [been] very easy throughout the ages and in all kinds of art to make people turn against…

CHAHINE: I don't think that they've taken him as a villain at all. I think most people identify themselves as being with that character more than the others because most of the people at that time, and to an extent, up to now, are still repressed from the sexual point of view. So he was not taken as a villain. He was taken as somebody who was suffering very much and when I was surprised at the success of the film, I discovered that everybody loves a lover no matter how far he goes, and all he was doing is because he loved so deeply and so much, so people did not take him at all as a villain. I didn't treat him as a villain.

LUDDY: You said you were very happy to show your film to American audiences. Have you ever considered making a film in America about America from an Arab point of view? 

CHAHINE: I believe in something because I've seen some very great masters coming here, I mean people like Antonioni and others, and doing pictures. Even though I stayed in America only for about two, three years, I don't daresay that I know the Americans enough to do a picture about them. It's a very serious business. I would not choose America in particular. I'll be very honest with you: I do pictures for the whole world. At a given moment, when America refused our films totally, the Soviet Union was buying them and even giving us money and it's not only the money but it's the opportunity that about 100 million people were seeing our pictures over there. I know and it's rather flattering and it makes you think more than twice to know that for one of the films they made 700 copies of. 700 copies of a film! I [make] the film in Cairo and we never go beyond 22 [distribution prints]. So to make a film especially for one kind of people, no. I'm trying to be universal in my language to the best of my ability. It's not easy but when they tell me you have to go to a faster rhythm, no, I have my own rhythm. If you are not used to it, well, it's too bad. I am doing my best to be universal. I'm not being particular. However I would not want to talk to the Americans alone. The world is a very huge place and there are a lot of people who want to see our movies.

LUDDY: Are you involved now in any politically critical films in Egypt like The Sparrow was?

CHAHINE: Yes, and a lot of the younger people dare more these days. And I was telling some nice people that I was talking to this morning in a class that if you take the percentage of the motion pictures done in other countries, we are doing political pictures or politically inclined pictures on an even higher percentage than a lot of [other] countries. We are doing about five political pictures out of 60 every year which is already not bad, and they're pretty involved, and we get in trouble with the censorship. I don't call them particularly political; I say I have something to say and if the censorship sometimes is clever and they're nice Egyptians—I'm Egyptian too, I can be clever as much as they are—and we keep on playing the game, you know. All the film-creators in the world have a bad time with the censorship because the censorship [people] are not always on the level that you would want them to be. Some of them are.

LUDDY: Not sure I understand the question. [A member of the audience] said that in contemporary Arab and Egyptian literature there's a certain type of symbolism repeated and it refers to strife and struggle…

CHAHINE: By whom? Naguib [Mahfouz]?

LUDDY: Season of Migration to the North

CHAHINE: Yes, Tayeb [Salih].

LUDDY: The Woman on the Mountain and certain kinds of motifs that repeat and this kind of contemporary fiction. Are there is there something analogous to this in cinema?

CHAHINE:  Maybe not as much as literature and I prefer that. And I prefer the young people to express themselves the way that they feel or according to the pressures that are on them. I think actually in spite [the fact] that we're still not very brilliant but I think that the Arab cinema throughout the Arab world, to quite an extent, is maybe even more advanced than the literature of today because a lot of the people who write literature maybe are more afraid than us. And because many cinema people are younger people—don't look at me, I'm one of the old guys—but I think I could stay young through wanting to do more things and the young filmmakers are more forward today than even the writers. And maybe also the censorship works in a different way but they are able to say in the films things not because it's the only way to say them. They always find new means.

LUDDY: We're going to see The Land [Al Ard, 1969] now. Can you tell us something about the background to this film and is there anything that would be interesting for the audience to know about before they see it?

CHAHINE: That's the Egyptian peasant, he's been living like that for thousands of years. We can take the word romantically and say "okay, a very high civilization." We're the people who built the Pyramids but we are also the people who want to survive. We are now 40 million and if the Egyptian peasant at that time was living under the fantastic pressures that came from the British imperialism and before that the Turkish and the French and one hundred types of imperialism, now he is supposedly [free]. But the mechanisms of imperialisms have become much more subtle. I don't think there's been a tremendous change. It's already difficult, no matter what system you're using, to bring about a tremendous change unless you find oil or something. It takes a hell of a lot of money to create that. So I think it is my job to talk about these people. Again, for some reasons, I say this took place in 1926, but I think that you're sophisticated enough—the Egyptian public is sophisticated enough, and the Arab public and the world public is sophisticated enough—to see that these mechanisms are still working and in such a subtle way that now that's becoming even more dangerous because you cannot touch it. You don't know where the problem comes from. Instead of telling you about the picture, all I can tell you is that we work very sincerely. It was [based on] a novel by Abdullah al-Sharqawi. Now, of course rather enriched, [Sharqawi] is a bit far away from these people. But all the artists who did work on the movie—the photographer, the people who helped us, the actors—are very much involved in that picture. We believe in it, we did it very sincerely, and I think it depicts the Egyptian farmer in his universality to the best of our ability.  The same sufferings that you will see here may have taken another aspect but they're still there to quite an extent.

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