Egyptian film-maker Youssef Chahine

The great visionary of Arab cinema

Obsessive, argumentative, yet well ahead his time artistically and in terms of the subject matter his films addressed: 11 years after his death director Youssef Chahine remains a lodestar for the emerging Arab independent film scene. Christopher Resch explains why

Almost exactly 50 years ago, a limping newspaper boy could be seen hanging around the concourse of Cairo Central Station. He was new to the city: behind him, his village; before him, pin-up girls. The walls of his wooden shack were papered with their images. But these scantily-clad women would be of little help to him, a young man suffering the pangs of unrequited love for the drink-vendor Hanouma. Qinawi is the name of the hapless main character in "Bab al-Hadid" (Cairo Station, 1958), who was played by the director himself, Youssef Chahine.

Arsenal, the Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin, recently paid tribute to the father of Egyptian – nay Arab – cinema by devoting a retrospective to his work. Not all of Chahine's 44 films were good in the cinematic sense, but they are all vivid snapshots of contemporary Egyptian history. And this is what makes the complete oeuvre of this passionate film-maker, who passed away in 2008, so valuable today.

"A man possessed"

"Chahine was a man possessed," says Marianne Khoury. "There was only a very thin line between cinema and his private life. Everything was interwoven – even his family." Khoury knows what she is talking about. Not only is she a producer and film-maker, she is also Chahine's niece. Being part of his creations, she says, was like joining a cult.

Youssef Chahine was fiercely independent. Throughout his life, he hated nothing more than people trying to talk him into doing things. This is reflected in the subject matter of his films: right from the word go, he highlighted the conflicts between the common people and representatives of state or the upper class.

Still from "Cairo Station" (source: AL Film Festival in Berlin)
Maverick and enfant terrible of the Arab film scene: Youssef Chahine was fiercely independent. Throughout his life, he hated nothing more than people trying to talk him into doing things. This is reflected in the subject matter of his films: right from the word go, he highlighted the conflicts between the common people and representatives of state or the upper class

Many of his characters suffer from sexual frustration, which becomes a breeding ground for brutality in the precarious existence that is life in a big city or in the face of police repression. Several of his films can be interpreted as foreseeing the strikes that began to grip the Egyptian textile industry from 2007 onwards and that ultimately led to the revolution in 2011.

"Alexandria … why?"

Indeed labour rights are a frequent theme in Chahine's work. In a highly amusing scene in "Iskindereya… leh?" (Alexandria … why?, 1978) a young man asks his wealthy father for five pounds. "Five pounds?" replies his father. "That's the wages of five workers!" His son retorts: "but they are underpaid", to which his father replies: "So, the boy thinks he's a communist."

In the end, of course, he gives his son the money. He certainly won't miss five pounds. "Alexandria … why?" won the silver bear at the Berlinale in 1979. This cemented Chahine's global fame once and for all.

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