Interview with Youssef Chahine

"Tenderness Has Dissapeared"

Youssef Chahine is the grand old man and the enfant terrible of Arabian cinema. Moritz Behrendt and Christian Meier met the 80-year-old director in Cairo, who on the occasion certified his reputation as one of the most vociferous critics of Egyptian politics

Youssef Chahine (photo: EPA)
Youssef Chahine: "You must participate. You can't be an artist if you don't know the social, the political, and the economical context."

​​It was in the news that you joined the anti-presidential "Kifaya" movement before the presidential elections.

Youssef Chahine: No, I never joined Kifaya, they don't even have a program. One day they came and asked me: "Come stand with us!" But I am not an idiot, they were about forty people, and they were surrounded by 3000 security forces with sticks and tear bombs. The repression is unbelievable, and the mafia that is ruling the country is very strong. They have the police, two or three secret services and if they can't do it, they have the army. And if it's not the army, it's the American army. They are well organised. You really can't do very much.

Does the number of demonstrators get bigger?

Chahine: To a certain extent, but it is not enough. We have been living for 23 years under what you may call the "Security Act" which the Americans call the "Patriot Act". They have the same shit, but we are underdeveloped so the shit is bigger. Once I wanted to give the university a gift of very thick sticks. Because the boys go out with a copy book. What can you do with a copy book? Every time they get beaten. For once I want us to beat them.

What do you think is the role of artists in the contemporary political situation?

Chahine: You must participate. You can't be an artist if you don't know the social, the political, and the economical context. If you talk about the Egyptian people, you must know about are their problems. Either you are with modernity or you don't know what the hell you're doing. Because when Mr. Bush farts we jump.

Do you believe that the United States or France would help "Kifaya" like they supported the opposition movement in Lebanon?

Chahine: No. The U.S. is helping Mr. Mubarak. They put him there. He is one of their stooges. He always blackmails them: "It's either me or the Islamists." They prefer him.

As far as culture is concerned, you used to be much closer to the Americans.

Chahine: I used to be crazy about them. I studied in Pasadena.

Has your attitude changed?

Chahine: There's a rupture because I am sick of what they are doing. Not only in Iraq, even with me.

In my last film, I wanted little bits of American musicals of the 40ies. I wanted some with Frank Sinatra. They said "Ok, we want two million dollars". I said: "If I am doing this I am honouring the American cinema." They didn't give a shit, they just wanted the money.

Is this rupture only political or does it also have a cultural side?

Chahine: I still like the American culture. They are very inventive, they always do new things. But the basic philosophy of a very, very savage capitalism makes them very violent. The films prove to what extent they have become violent.

Does this alienation take away a part of you biography?

Chahine: It makes me angry. My last film was about to what extent the American people are getting numb. Tenderness has disappeared. The old films of the 40ies were romantic. They had beautiful music, beautiful girls came down beautiful stairs. You walked out of the film singing, now you walk out of the film and you want to vomit.

How important, economically, is success in Egypt for your films?

Chahine: If they are forbidden in Egypt, you're ruined. That is the strength of the censorship. You show your scenario first, and three imbeciles read it. They say: "You take out this, you take out that". Then I say: "No, I take out nothing." And while you are shooting, you have two or three veiled ladies and they sit there looking at what you are doing. So I have to find tricks: I have a very handsome assistant, so I tell him to flirt with them. So any time I shoot a scene that is a little bit political or sexual he takes them to the corridor. As far away from me as possible.

Not only in your films but also in public you like to make political statements.

Chahine: They don't like me on television. I refuse to be on television unless it is live. Otherwise they only air the parts they like. Even in newspapers they edit all my quotes because I keep insulting the Minister of the Interior. For me it is unbearable because our President doesn't like intellectuals at all. He doesn't like films, he watches football. I can't do anything against it. We live in a total dictatorship with people who are very, very ignorant in very important places.

Can you imagine Egypt being more free and liberal in the near future?

Chahine: No, neither in the near not in the faraway future. The people are too tired to do demonstrations in the streets.

Even the many, many young people in Egypt don't give you hope?

Chahine: Not because they are young. I see them front of the German and French consulates, everybody wants to emigrate. I used to tell the young people: "Don't do it! If you have studied, we need you here". I was old-fashioned thinking only of the beauty of my country. Now I tell them "leave!" They have no chance here, it's too corrupt. By staying here, you become corrupt.

Interview conducted by Moritz Behrendt and Christian Meier

© 2006

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