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Youssef Chahine: remembering Egypt’s greatest film maker

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Dalia Said Mostafa celebrates the life of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine
Issue 2113
Cairo Station is a brilliant portrayal of a society in flux, as growing class consciousness and demands for liberation clash with the constraints of Egyptian society
Cairo Station is a brilliant portrayal of a society in flux, as growing class consciousness and demands for liberation clash with the constraints of Egyptian society

The death of Youssef Chahine on 27 July means that Egypt has lost the last great director from the 1950s generation.

His films introduced groundbreaking techniques as well as avant-garde themes revolving around the issues of freedom, equality, identity and justice.

Chahine is Egypt’s best-known director and producer internationally. This is not only because of the quality of his films and the variety of themes and cinematic techniques found in them, but also because many of his films were screened and won awards at international film festivals.

In 1997, Chahine was awarded the lifetime achievement award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Chahine was the only Egyptian director to have been honoured by the Berlin, Cannes and Venice film festivals.

Chahine was born in Alexandria in 1926 to a middle class Christian family. He studied at the Victoria College school in Alexandria, and then travelled to the US to study acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in California.


He fought unrelentingly against commercial cinema and the use of propaganda in cinema.

Chahine made his first film, Daddy Amin, in 1950, and in the next 57 years he made over 40 films and developed his cinematic techniques into a style uniquely his own.

Throughout his career, Chahine was an example of the avant-garde artist whose art came to represent as well as critically engage with society’s concerns, contradictions and problems.

Art and society go hand in hand in Chahine’s films, a characteristic which has made his cinema deeply controversial, not only in Egypt but also in the whole of the Arab world.

As Samir Farid, an Egyptian film critic remarked, the 1967 defeat in the war with Israel, together with the massive worldwide student demonstrations of 1968, constituted turning points in Chahine’s cinema and impacted on both the form and content of his film-making.

His cinema became bolder, more critical and more aggressive against authoritarian and oppressive powers.

Through his films, Chahine triggered crucial debates and discussions about the national question, the Palestinian cause, Arab nationalism and the question of identity.

His films often depicted the daily life of the marginalised, the peasants, and the urban poor, paying great attention to the detail of their circumstances. As a result he was a headache for the authorities in Egypt and his films were often subject to censorship.

However, he never made compromises for the sake of the state, and continued to be highly critical of corruption and of any dictatorial rule or regime in general.

Chahine always participated in political debates and argued in defence of freedom of expression, equality between men and women, and the liberation of Palestine.

He voiced his protest, along with millions of other Egyptians against the imperialist US policies in the Middle East.

In 2000 he took to the streets of Cairo in support of the second Palestinian Intifada (uprising) and in 2003 he joined street protests against the war on Iraq. Again in 2006 he participated in demonstrations against the Israeli war on Lebanon.

He continued to make films until the last breath. His last film was Heya Fawda (Chaos), which he co-directed with Khaled Youssef.

The film addressed the brutal crackdown on freedom of expression in Egypt and the chaos and oppression caused by those who abuse power and authority. It aimed to universalise the themes of oppression, power, and democracy and was screened at the 64th Venice Film Festival.

Some of Chahine’s films will always remain landmarks in Egyptian cinema.

These include:

  • Cairo Station (1958) where Chahine himself played the main role as a poor newspaper seller at the main Cairo railway station. It addressed issues of class, violence, fantasy, and sexual desire.
  • Salah al-Din: The Victorious (1963) is a historic and political epic about the continuous fight against external aggressions and injustices
  • The Sparrow (1973) came as an indictment of the corruption which led to the defeat in the war with Israel in 1967.
  • Return of the Prodigal Son (1976) is a political musical depicting the complete collapse of a bourgeois family as a result of the severe contradictions dominating the relationships between its members.

Cahine also produced a series of autobiographical films in four parts.

These start with Alexandria… Why? (1978) for which Chahine won the jury’s special award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1979, followed by An Egyptian Tale (1982), Alexandria Again and Forever (1989), and finally Alexandria-New York (2004).

One of Chahine’s most important documentary works is Cairo Illuminated by its People (1991), a fantastic representation of the director’s own view of Cairo which is still banned in Egypt.

Chahine also participated in a short film, Eleven Minutes Ten Seconds, together with other internationally renowned filmmakers on their views of the 9/11 terror attacks in the US.

Youssef Chahine will always be remembered as Egypt’s independent and brave director and producer.

He introduced a new cinema and has had a great impact on generations of film-makers in Egypt and the Arab world.

Dr Dalia Said Mostafa is a postdoctoral research fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Manchester. Her current research focuses on literary and visual representations of Beirut since the Lebanese civil war

Youssef Chahine
Youssef Chahine

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