International recognition was always very important to him. That is why he was accused of always having one eye on France or the United States and of being indifferent at heart to the Egyptian masses. In light of the themes addressed in his films, this accusation overshoots the mark.
The criticism that he at times allowed himself to be used by Gamal Abdel Nasser – president of Egypt from 1954 to 1970 and adored by the Egyptian people – for the latterʹs own ends, is more accurate: the film "Al Nil wal Haya" (Once Upon a Time … The Nile, 1969) was a co-production between the United Arab Republic and the Soviet Union and was commissioned by Nasser himself.
Nevertheless, Youssef Chahine remained independent to the core. His vision of cinema was too personal and too uncompromising to allow himself to be used by anyone in the long term, write the curators of the Arsenal retrospective in the accompanying leaflet.
The first version of "Once Upon a Time … The Nile" didn't meet with the approval of the film's soviet bankrollers. In the years that followed, several of Chahine's films were censored. To this day, some of them are banned in a number of Arab countries. This is one of the reasons Chahine set up his own production company, Misr International, in the early 1970s. The company is now run by his niece, Marianne Khoury. This gave the director, whose work matured as he grew older, greater artistic freedom.
Parody of mainstream cinema
"Only a handful of Arab directors have made such a transition from mainstream film-maker to committed film auteur," says film theorist Viola Shafik of the work of the Egyptian director. His film style, she says, parodies mainstream cinema, while at the same time incorporating elements of it. "With regard to this hybrid style, he can certainly be compared with Federico Fellini," says Shafik. Fellini is considered one of the greatest film auteurs of the twentieth century.
It is above all the artistic freedom in Chahine's work that makes him a lodestar for today's Arab film-makers. In this respect, the Zawya cinema in Cairo – perhaps the first and only arthouse cinema in Egypt – has played a massive role as a cinematic hub since its establishment in 2014. Zawya shows films by both great directors such as Chahine and lesser-known independent film-makers.
Since the early days of digitalisation in the mid Noughties, independent films have been produced in Egypt. Suddenly, it has become easier and cheaper for young directors to make films. "This development has brought great movement into the film scene. However, all of this is happening in parallel to the mainstream film industry," says Viola Shafik. In other words, most of these film-makers are cut off from the funding opportunities within the country. More so than in other parts of the world, Arab film-makers depend on foreign financial backers, who often dictate the subject matter of the film.
Bridges between West and East
One of Youssef Chahine's last films was "Al-Massir" (Destiny, 1997). In this historical film, which was untypical for him because of its formulaic quality, he used the twelfth-century philosopher Averroes to show how quickly liberal thinking can come under threat from intolerance and hate.
"He wanted to build bridges, between West and East too," says Marianne Khoury. This unifying aspect was the born of Chahine's biography. His father was Lebanese, his mother Greek. Muslims, Jews and Christians (the Chahines were the latter) lived quite peacefully alongside each other. His native city, Alexandria, was considered cosmopolitan.
Youssef Chahine, this great Arab director, stands – and has always stood – for open-mindedness and tolerance. For example, at a very early stage in his career, he addressed the issue of homosexuality in his work. To this day, it is still a taboo subject in Egypt and in many states in the region.
Whether there will be any room in Arab societies for the plurality of identities shown in Chahine's work is the big question. It is not unusual for film-makers to be before their time. Real life may, however, catch up.
© Qantara.de 2019
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan