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In Memoriam: Youssef Chahine

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In Memoriam: Youssef Chahine

Filmmaker Youssef Chahine

The news that Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine died last week at the age of 82 received wide press coverage. Superlatives like “legendary,” “great” and “the Arab world's greatest filmmaker” peppered the obituaries.

Though Chahine began making films in the 1950s, he came to international prominence in the late 1970s with his Alexandria trilogy – later expanded into a tetralogy. The first of these films was the widely banned ALEXANDRIA , WHY?  Its innovation in the commercial, largely melodramatic Egyptian cinema , was Chahine's use of a first-person narrative. It tells the story of a young student who loves Shakespeare and Hollywood and wants to come to the United States . But then he discovers the lies that infect the European occupation of Egypt . With this realization, the young student's idolization of the West crumbles.

Chahine made over 40 films during his long career. Many of them were commercial vehicles. But with ALEXANDRIA WHY?  and other films like CAIRO STATION, THE LAND, THE SPARROW and THE EMIGRANT, he dissected the contradictions of Egyptian society, the enormous divisions between the rich and the poor, and the all-pervasive corruption which penetrated every aspect of Egyptian life and politics.

In his simple and very direct 1997 film, DESTINY, Chahine powerfully portrayed and railed against the intolerance of Islamist fundamentalism. Egypt 's leading actor, Nour El Sherif played the role of Averroes, a 12th century Muslim philosopher, who had a profound influence on both Western and Islamic civilization. Averroes fights against the fundamentalist of his time, under the protection of the powerful Caliph. But the plotting of the fundamentalist groups whose strict interpretation of the Koran Averroes opposes, eventually turns the Caliph against him. He is sent into exile and his treasured books are burned. In broad brush strokes and with melodramatic flourishes, the film strikes a powerful blow at the narrow-mindedness of fundamentalism.

The Egyptian government wanted to check the historic accuracy of DESTINY. Chahine said, “I see things visually; if you don't like my point of view, make another film. My movie is not chronological; it's not a thesis.”

In 1994, he ran up against this intolerance with THE EMIGRANT, a film based on the story of Joseph and his flight to Egypt . The film was running in Cairo theatres for 9 weeks when it was suddenly banned. “All because a bearded lawyer said it was illegal to represent a prophet on film,” said Chahine. “I think he was subsidized by other extremists – and in cahoots with officials. How can you tell me not to be inspired by the Old testament, those juicy stories? It's like saying, “Stop thinking!”

Yet Chahine's fight against religious zealots was not limited to the Arab world. “Fanatics are not just in Arab countries,” he said, “We should stop talking about Islamic terrorism; what about Catholic terrorism or Judaic terrorism? What about those conservative white men in Washington or Le Pen [in France ]? People are becoming more ethnic, more religious, more fundamentalist and more terrorist, and sects are everywhere.”

Chahine contributed a film to the omnibus feature 11'09''01, made in response to the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack.  Chahine's segment is troubling. It's the story of a film director who cancels an interview with the press when he hears about the terrorist attacks in America . He is then visited by the ghosts of two soldiers who demand that the filmmaker tells their stories. One of the ghosts is that of a U.S. Marine who was killed in Lebanon in 1983, during the Israeli Invasion. The other ghost is a Palestinian young man, who was killed during the Israeli suppression of the Intifada. After the ghost of the American Marine pesters the filmmaker for ignoring the American tragedy, the filmmaker lashes out against his perceived hypocrisy of American democracy.

Chahine was chastised by many critics for the seeming anti-Americanism of this episode, but the film is an honest reflection of a troubled Arab intellectual who is asked to respond to a great tragedy. But he is unable to forget the tragedies which frame the history of the world from which he comes – a tortured history of the Middle East , complicated and unjust, because of the meddling and manipulation of the West.

In his almost 50 years of filmmaking, Chahine was never far from controversy. He even went on strike. He said, “I handcuffed myself to the prime minister's gate. All my projects are high risk, and I fight like mad.”

Milos Stehlik's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or Chicago Public Radio.

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