Egyptian film has always been at the forefront of Arab cinema, and chief among its passionate practitioners is Egyptian director Youssef Chahine. His work has dominated Arabic films for more than five decades. In Cairo he has his own production company, Misr International, consisting of theaters and a studio. His biographer, Ibrahim Fawal writes, "As an influential voice of modern Egypt, the internationally acclaimed Chahine is to Arab cinema what the Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz is to Arabic literature."
Born in Alexandria of a Lebanese father and a Greek mother, Chahine produced films embodying a search for self-identity; this quest may reflect his own search for his Egyptian self. From an early date films were at the center of his life. He loved musicals, and at age of fourteen wanted to dance like Gene Kelly. Later he aspired to be as great a Hamlet as John Gielgud. After finishing Victoria College and one year at Alexandria University , he studied theater and television at the Pasadena Playhouse in California for two years.
A many-talented photographer, actor, dancer, and writer, back in Cairo Chahine devoted himself to directing. His first feature film, Baba Amin, appeared in 1951, initiating an extraordinarily varied outpouring of feature films and documentaries.
In his socially conscious work Chahine sought the heart of Egyptian society, looking unflinchingly at Egyptian peasants and the city's poor. His first film to earn an international reputation, Bab al-Hadid (Cairo Station) startled audiences in 1958 with its frank portrayal of a society of luggage carriers, soft-drink sellers, and newspaper dealers living in abandoned train cars in Cairo's central railway station. Chahine himself played the central character, Kinawi, a poor newspaper seller overwhelmed by sexual drives, repression, and madness. The earlier Raging Sky (1953), Seraa Fi El-Wadi (Sky of Hell, 1954), starring Chahine's discovery, Omar Sharif, and El-Ard (The Land, 1969) all focus on the conflict between peasant farmer and feudal landlord. El-Ard was named "the best Egyptian film ever" in a late '90s poll of Egyptian film critics.
Chahine's humanitarian portrayal of the underside of society exposes political oppression. El-Usfour (The Sparrow, 1973) reveals Chahine's political reaction to the government's handling of the six-day war with Israel. Naas Wa el-Nil (Once upon a Time the Nile, 1968) explores the conflict between individual concerns and collective involvement in the handling of the construction of the Aswan Dam.
Historical events, both distant and recent, are frequent subjects of Chahine films. El-Nasser Salah Eddine (Saladin, 1963), a film commemorating the nationalization of the Suez Canal, portrays 12 th century Saladin and reflects Nasser's attempts to unify the Arabs. The film has been called the greatest historical epic of the Egyptian cinema. Once Upon a Time the Nile depicts the building of the Aswan damn from the point of view of engineers and workers, and The Sparrow is set during the 1967 six-day war. Adieu Bonaparte (1985) assesses the legacy of Bonaparte's 1798 expedition in Egypt.
"Rare is the [Chahine] film in which history and politics do not resonate, or the film in which a part of his own life is not integrated." Between 1978 and 2004 Chahine brought out a quartet of autobiographical films focused on the character Yehia, an unmistakable Chahine, in a frank autobiographical exploration of personality, sexuality, and familial entanglements, all set against the socio-political history of the years between the two world wars. The prize winning Alexandria ... Why? portraying a "political and social mosaic" of Egypt in the 1940s, promoted controversy and censorship as well as praise. Haddouta Misriya (An Egyptian Story, 1982) examines Chahine's own life as a director. The 1989 Alexandria Again and Forever backgrounds a hunger strike by the entire Egyptian film industry. The film, described as "a hybrid of straightforward narrative, cinéma verité, formalism, expressionism, and some animation," also includes an operetta. The quartet concludes with Alexandria ... New York in 2004, a film which explores relationships between Egypt and the United States.
Youssef Chahine worked closely with novelists and playwrights. Saladin was scripted by the poet and writer Abderrahman Cherkaoui and Naguib Mahfuz; Mahfuz also collaborated with the director in writing El-Ikhtiyar (The Choice, 1970). Chahine adapted The Earth (1969) from Cherkaoui's popular novel of the same title. Al-Yawm al-Sadis (The Sixth Day, 1986) was adapted from a novel by the Lebanese writer André Chedid about a poor Egyptian woman. In 1992 when Jacques Lassalle proposed that Chahine choose a piece to stage at the Comédie Française, Chahine chose Albert Camus's, Caligula, and earned enormous acclamation for his stage production.
From the very outset Youssef Chahine's cinematic productions were marked by individuality in both subject matter and technique. Audience's already rattled by the innovative treatment of characters from the humble and destitute areas of society and a curious mixture of the personal and the historical had also to contend with a variety of genres, unexpected plot lines, and a curious mixture of thematic focus. With Chahine a single film can be simultaneously musical, newsreel, and love story. For the uninitiated his non-linear plots seemed delivered at a breathless, frenetic pace. Chahine mixes intimate autobiography with psychology, sociology, and political analysis. One critic wrote, "Many of his films 'read' like modernist scripts: fragmented, convoluted, with a dash of the Theatre of the Absurd."
Chahine's films shocked and disturbed; many were invitations for misunderstanding, banning, and censorship. After the first showing in 1958, Cairo Station, which shocked traditionally conservative audiences with its violence and shattered social taboos, was neglected for some 30 years. One of Chahine's most controversial films, The Sparrow (1973), which examines implications of the six-day war with Israel, was banned by the authorities until international public opinion brought about a rescinding of the ban. Difficulties with Soviet collaborators over Once Upon a Time the Nile (1968) postponed the release of the film until 1972, and El-Muhajir ( The Emigrant, 1994), based on the Biblical story of Joseph, ran afoul of conservative religious authorities at Al-Azhar University, and was subsequently banned twice.
As early as Ibn el-Nil (Nile Boy , 1951) Chahine was invited to the Cannes Film Festival, where he earned a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 50 th Anniversary Festival in 1996. In 1970 he received the grand prize, the Golden Tanit Award, at the Carthage Film Festival. Alexandria ... Why? won a Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 1979. Chahine has been honored at numerous film festivals, including a retrospective at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland in 1996 and at the 36 th New York Film Festival in 1998. He is the only Egyptian director to have been honored at all three major film festivals - Venice, Berlin, and Cannes. In 2006 he was awarded the officer insignia of the French Legion of Honor in a celebration at the French Embassy in Cairo.