Youssef Chahine in 1986
Youssef Gabriel Chahine|
25 January 1926
27 July 2008 (aged 82)|
|Occupation||Film director, Actor, Writer and Producer.|
Youssef Chahine (Arabic: يوسف شاهين; 25 January 1926 – 27 July 2008) was an Egyptian film director, he was active in the Egyptian film industry from 1950 until his death. A winner of the Cannes 50th Anniversary Award (for lifetime achievement), Chahine was credited with launching the career of actor Omar Sharif. A critically acclaimed director frequently seen in film festivals during the earlier decades of his work, Chahine reached wider international audiences as one of the co-directors of 11'9"01 September 11.
Chahine was born in Alexandria, Egypt to a Melkite Catholic family of Syro-Lebanese descent. His father was an attorney originally from Zahle, Lebanon and was a supporter of the Egyptian nationalist Wafd Party. In 2001, his mother, Claire Bastorous was a tailor. Although Chahine was raised Catholic, he was not a believer in organized religion. If asked of his religion, he would state, "Egyptian". At home, the Chahines spoke five languages, which was common in cosmopolitan Alexandria at the time.
Fascinated by the performing arts from an early age, young Chahine began to create shows at home for his family. Chahine began his education at a Frères' school Collège Saint Marc. Growing up, he attended Alexandria's elite Victoria College. In 1946, Chahine convinced his parents to let him travel to Hollywood to study acting, where he attended the Pasadena Playhouse outside Los Angeles, California.
Starting as a director
After returning to Egypt, he turned his attention to directing. Cinematographer Alvise Orfanelli helped Chahine into the film business. Chahine directed his first feature film in 1950, Baba Amin (Daddy Amin) at the age of 23, two years before the revolution of 1952 that saw the overthrow of the monarchy and the rise of the charismatic leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. One year later, with Nile Boy (1951) he was first invited to the Cannes Film Festival. Sira’ fi-l-Wadi (Struggle in the Valley) introduced Omar Sharif to the cinematic screen. In 1970 he was awarded a Golden Tanit at the Carthage Film Festival for al-Ikhtiyar (The Choice). With The Sparrow (1973), in which he showed his political opinions after the Six-Day War with Israel, he directed the first Egypt–Algeria co-production.
He won the Silver Bear – Special Jury Priz at the 29th Berlin International Film Festival for Alexandria... Why? (1978), the first instalment in what would prove to be an autobiographic quartet, completed with An Egyptian Story (1982), Alexandria, Again and Again (1990), and Alexandria...New York (2004). The producer Humbert Balsan went to Cannes in 2004 with Alexandria... New York, his ninth film with the Egyptian director since 1985's Adieu, Bonaparte. In one of his films The Sixth Day اليوم السادس, an adaptation of a novel written in French by Lebanese writer André Chedid, the famous Egyptian singer Dalida was the protagonist in the role of a poor Egyptian woman.
About his work, Chahine has said, "I make my films first for myself. Then for my family. Then for Alexandria. Then for Egypt," Chahine once famously said. "If the Arab world likes them, ahlan wa sahlan (welcome). If the foreign audience likes them, they are doubly welcome."
Chahine’s early films in Egypt included Raging Sky (1953), begun while Farouk was still King and dealing with a peasant farmer’s challenge to a feudal landlord. But the first truly indicative film of his style and preoccupations was Cairo Station (Bab al-Hadid), in 1958.
Chahine himself plays the central character, Kenaoui, a simple-minded man, beneficently employed as a newspaper-seller. He cuts pictures of women from magazines for the station hut he lives in, but a living focus of his sexual frustrations is Hanouma (played by the popular actress Hind Rostom), who sells lemonade and is engaged to Abou Serib (Farid Shawki), porter and trade union organiser. With unthinking but affectionate playfulness Hanouma exacerbates Kenaoui’s frustration and adds to his confusion which leads to death. Egyptian audiences, used to simpler melodramas, were disturbed and rejected the film. It was not seen again for some 20 years.
In 1963 Chahine made Saladin (original title: El Nasser Salah Ed-Din ("Saladin, The Victorious"), an epic, three-hour film in CinemaScope named after the 12th-century Ayyubid sultan who, as the film begins, is preparing to liberate Jerusalem from its Crusader occupiers. It was scripted by Naguib Mahfouz and the poet and progressive writer, Abderrahman Cherkaoui, and a parallel between Saladin and President Nasser, a champion of pan-Arabism, is easily drawn. Saladin is shown as an educated and peaceable man—at one point he is asked to give clandestine medical help to Richard the Lion Heart, shot by an arrow, and later he tells him: "Religion is God’s and the Earth is for all ... I guarantee to all Christians in Jerusalem the same rights as are enjoyed by Muslims." Chahine was well aware of the propaganda dimension that implicitly painted President Nasser as a modern-era Saladin, stating "My own sympathies were with pan-Arabism, which I still believe in." The main reason he made the film was to prove that an epic film with a small budget, by global cinema standards. From then on, he only produced color films.
A novel by Cherkaoui, serialised in 1952, formed the basis of The Earth (1968), noted particularly for its image of the peasant farmer – "eternal ‘damned of the earth’" – which broke with "the ridiculous image the cinema had (hitherto) given him" (Khaled Osman). There followed a further collaboration with Mahfouz on The Choice (1970), ostensibly a murder investigation story involving twin brothers, but with the underlying theme of intellectual schizophrenia. In 1976 he made The Return Of The Prodigal Son, a "musical tragedy", but four years earlier had made one of his greatest films, The Sparrow (1972), both co-productions with Algeria. A journalist and a young police officer meet while investigating incidents of corruption. They and other people of the left pass through Bahiyya’s house, whose name represents the idea of the mother country and is invoked in Cheikh Imam’s song at the end of the film. After Nasser’s announcement of the defeat in the war and his subsequent resignation, Bahiyya runs into the street, followed by a growing crowd, shouting "No! we must fight. We won’t accept defeat!"
In Alexandria, Why? (1978), Yehia, a young Victoria College student, is obsessed with Hollywood and dreams of making cinema. It is 1942, the Germans are about to enter Alexandria, thought preferable to the presence of the British. In An Egyptian Story (1982), as a result of a heart operation, he reviews his life: moments of Chahine’s own films are replayed against their autobiographical and social historical context. Memory is very important to Chahine’s most recent work —whether of the "city of my childhood, Alexandria, between the two world wars tolerant, secular, open to Muslims, Christians and Jews" or of a more distant past: such as evoked in Adieu Bonaparte (1985), based on the cultural aspect of Bonaparte’s expedition into Egypt (1798). "Out of this marvellous confrontation there was a rebirth of Egyptian consciousness, of its past ... which belongs to humanity."
In 1992 Jacques Lassalle approached him to stage a piece of his choice for Comédie-Française: Chahine chose to adapt Albert Camus' Caligula, which proved hugely successful. The same year he started writing The Emigrant (1994), a story inspired by the Biblical character of Joseph, son of Jacob.
This had long been a dream-project and he finally got to shoot it in 1994. This film created a controversy in Egypt between the enlightened wing and the fundamentalists who opposed the depiction of religious characters in films. In 1997, 46 years and 5 invitations later, his work was acknowledged at the Cannes Film Festival with a lifetime achievement award on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the festival. He is also credited with discovering Omar Sharif, whose first starring role was in Chahine's film The Blazing Sun (1954). He also provided Hind Rostom with a very early role in Bab al-Hadid (Cairo Station).
- The Sparrow attacks Egyptian corruption and blamed it for the defeat in the Six Day War.
- Cairo Station, albeit a classic of Egyptian cinema, also shocked viewers both by the sympathy with which a "fallen woman" is depicted and by the violence with which another is killed.
- During the several following years Chahine found himself increasingly in conflict with the government-backed film industry of Egypt and its heavy political restrictions in filmmaking. In 1964 he voluntarily went into exile to Lebanon, where he shot two musicals: Bayya al-Khawatim (1965, Ring Seller ) and Rimal al-Dhahab (1967, Sands of Gold ). Ring Seller became one of the best musicals of Arab cinema, bringing success to Youssef Chahine, whereas Sands of Gold, due to delays in shooting and its box-office failure, forced him to quit his work in Lebanon and return to Egypt.
Gay-Bisexual themes in his work
Chahine frequently included gay or bisexual themes in his work. Alexandria... Why? tells the story of two young men—one Egyptian, the other European—who fall in love during World War II. Yehia’s cousin is gay and ‘buys’ drunken British soldiers. Jewish friends are forced to leave and decide to settle in Palestine. In An Egyptian Story (1982) Yehia is a film-maker, going to London (as Chahine had earlier) for open-heart surgery. He has a brief affair with a taxi driver.
Illness and death
On Monday, 16 June 2008, Chahine was flown to Paris on an emergency flight and admitted to the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, west of Paris, where his niece told AFP his condition was "critical but stable."
Youssef Chahine died in his Cairo home on Sunday 27 July 2008.
He was honoured by BAFTA for his contribution to film.
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