Youssef Chahine’s Egypt in Seven Movies
At the heart of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine’s films are questions of identity, nationality, and self. On the anniversary of his passing, Ahmed Ragheb and Lily Ekimian dive into seven of his most quintessential films to try and understand this most enigmatic of filmmakers.
We recently asked an Egyptian friend of ours what he thought of Youssef Chahine, the famed Egyptian filmmaker. “He’s either insane or a genius,” he responded with a laugh, admitting, however, that he had never had the opportunity to actually watch any of Chahine’s enormous filmography. We found that our friend’s reaction to Chahine is surprisingly common: familiar enough to narrow his opinion down to two adjectives but not familiar enough with his work to choose one. Today marks 13 years since Chahine’s passing and, in honor of his memory and in an attempt to get our arms around his legacy, we watched as many of his films as we could manage to find.
The thing that most readily sticks out from his films—like a blinking red light—is his exploration of self and identity. Film after film, character after character, Chahine probes deeply into himself and his fellow countrymen in an attempt to understand what it means to be a man, a woman, a lover, a husband, a wife, an artist, an Egyptian, an Arab, and indeed what it means to be human. In this way, Chahine proved himself to be one of the most honest, and therefore consequential, filmmakers in Egyptian and international cinema. Below is a list of the films in which Chahine’s filmic eye probes most deeply into questions of identity and self.
Cairo Station (1958)
Among Chahine’s internationally acclaimed films, Cairo Station, screened at the 8th Berlin International Film Festival, is a neorealist triumph and an Egyptian classic. The film follows a crippled newspaper seller, played by Chahine himself, working in a Cairo train station. On the one hand, it explores the socialist ideals of a post-revolution Egypt amongst the working class. On the other emerges the more striking examination of the taboo and seldom-discussed issues of sexual desire, repression, and violence.
The Blazing Sun (1954)
Known for being the first feature film to cast the soon-to-be international megastar Omar Sharif, The Blazing Sun (also known popularly as Struggle in the Valley and The Blazing Sky) was screened at the 7th International Cannes Film Festival in 1954 to critical acclaim. Released only two years following the socialist, nationalist revolution in Egypt, the film follows the power struggles between a village community of farmers and a wealthy landowner. Caught between these forces is the tender love of a young engineer, who is the son of one of the farmers, representing the burgeoning middle class, and the daughter of the landowner. The unforgettable ending scene plays out amongst the faded ruins of an Ancient Egyptian temple and under the shadows of pharaohs past, serving as a stark reminder of the seemingly endless cycle of rebellion and tyranny that Egyptians are doomed to repeat.
Saladin the Victorious (1963)
Seen by many Arab viewers as a tremendous national achievement, Saladin the Victorious sought to match the popular Hollywood “historical epic” with a fraction of the budget and resources. The resulting film, a sprawling three hour account of Saladin’s battle for Jerusalem during the 12th century, pushed aside the Western historical narrative in favor of a more Arab-centric take on the Third Crusades and such figures as Richard the Lionheart and King Philip of France. The political potency of the film as an allegory for Pan-Arabism, anti-sectarianism and decolonization is striking even when removed from the context of the early 1960s and the Arab-Israeli wars of the 20th century.
The first of a semi-autobiographical trilogy which sees Chahine at his most honest, Alexandria… Why? takes place in Alexandria during World War II and on the eve of an impending German invasion. With the rest of the world in flames and air-raid sirens blaring, highschool student Yehia is determined to pursue his dreams of filmmaking and conspires to somehow escape to Hollywood. Once again willing to explore the most taboo of subjects, Chahine also uses Alexandria… Why? to explore homosexuality and the complicated and parasitic relationship between foreigners and Egyptians.
An Egyptian Story (1982)
In this second part to Chahine’s Alexandria trilogy, Yehia, middle-aged and now a successful filmmaker, collapses on set and is flown to London for open-heart surgery. While under anesthesia, Yehia hallucinates a trial wherein past, present, and future are personified and summoned to testify against him, revealing his true nature in the process. Here, Chahine lays bare—as literally as possible—his messy psyche for the audience and the world. The film represents a major step towards the absurd and the meta that would come to define Chahine’s style.
Alexandria Again and Forever (1989)
The last, and most bizarre, of the semi-autobiographical trilogy, Alexandria Again and Forever has Chahine himself return to the screen to play his cinematic counterpart, Yehia. The film is part memoir, part Hollywood-style musical, part political satire, part melodrama, part historical fantasy and it is Chahine at, arguably, his most pointedly opinionated. Here he remarks on the cold-shouldered and elitist nature of the international film community while also acknowledging the stubborn, bloated and often ineffectual film industry in Egypt.
One of only a handful of Chahine’s films in which Egypt is not central to the action of the story (at least obviously), Destiny is set in Andalusia during the 12th century and follows Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes), the consequential philosopher and theologian. Comparable to Saladin in many ways, Destiny once again sees Chahine seek to reclaim a common historical narrative, reframing it for Arabic-speaking audiences. Also like his 1963 epic, Destiny can be viewed as a thinly-veiled political allegory, this time examining the rising tide of violent religious fundamentalism that swept Egypt in the 1990s. Additionally, the film is graced with the presence of the great Mohamed Mounir and some unforgettable musical numbers.
Bonus: Cairo as Seen by Chahine (1991)
This short film was a result of a commission of Chahine by a French television network. At just 24 minutes, it is one of the most powerful and beautiful portraits of Cairo ever put to film. The audience is treated to the filmmaker’s artistic thought-process and his considerations when balancing what he knows Cairo to be and what he feels the European station will expect from a “portrait” of the city. Chahine films a wide cross-section of the city (including himself, of course) and manages—as much as it is even possible—to capture a fleeting sense of what it is like to be in that marvelous city for a day.
So, is Youssef Chahine insane or a genius? After watching these films, after studying each of them and their uniquely Chahinian perspective on the human condition, we ask: can he not be both? ▲
*All of these films are currently available to stream on Netflix
Lily Ekimian and Ahmed Ragheb are independent filmmakers based in Pittsburgh, PA. Together they run a production platform, Dog Door Films (@dogdoorfilms), and The Pittsburgher.