American University of Beirut

President's Speech - Youssef Chahine

President Waterbury:

Egypt and Lebanon have always had a curiously symbiotic relationship, especially in the arts. So many Lebanese, some of them from the Syrian Protestant College, have taken their creative talents to the banks of the Nile. There, at the hub of Arab culture, they have contributed to art, music, journalism, creative writing and, of course, film. Chahine was born in 1926 in Alexandria to a Lebanese father and a Greek mother. It was an Alexandria that was a kind of cultural engine for all the eastern Mediterranean. His mother and father struggled financially, and while he was still young his older brother died of pneumonia. Nonetheless his parents managed to send him to the elite Victoria College in Alexandria. By the age of 17 he had already set his course for theater, if not film. His parents were not pleased and enrolled him in the Faculty of Engineering at Alexandria University. There he staged a musical which was a personal triumph and which persuaded his father to let him leap into the unknown California. For almost two years he studied at the Pasadena Playhouse with the intention of acting. But once back in Egypt in 1948 he became convinced that he didn't have the looks that acting required. In his own colorful words he noted, I had a six meter long nose and ears like ship sails I couldn't be taken seriously. So he pursued a career in directing and his first film, Baba Amin, appeared in 1951. In the following 56 years Chahine has directed nearly forty films and some six documentaries. He has soaked up film traditions like a sponge and poured them back out in an eclectic manner that encompasses drama, history, human suffering, a profound respect for the poor and oppressed equaled by a love of music and the musical. Ibrahim Fawal, who has written of his cinematographic career, observed: Early in his youth he fell under the spell of the American musicals, particularly those of Gene Kelly. Some of Chahine's films invite comparison with Italian Neorealism or hint at the French New Wave Chahine's emphasis on the actor's performance , particularly the Stanislavsky style of acting, puts him in a league with Elia Kazan. On another level, Chahine's concern about post-colonial Egypt brings to mind the similar concerns of Satyajit Ray and Ousmane Sembene regarding post colonial India and Africa respectively. I can claim to have seen no more than a small part of Chahine's production over the years. Before I knew anything about him, I saw his 1958 film, Bab al-Hadid (The Cairo Railroad Station). Like the 1968 film, al-Ard (The Land), Chahine brought to the screen in a non-romanticized way the struggles of Egypt's poor, peasants, and migrants to the city, presented as multi-dimensional human beings battling with life in ways the middle classes could not comprehend or had determinedly forgotten. In Bab al-Hadid, Chahine played the unforgettable protagonist, Kinawi, a newspaper seller amidst a society of luggage carriers and soft-drink sellers living in abandoned train cars in Cairo's central railway station. El-Usfour (The Sparrow, 1973) reveals Chahine's political reaction to the government's handling of the 1967 six-day war with Israel. When the film appeared Gamal Abd al-Nasser had been dead for three years. The former president had forced Chahine into exile in Lebanon for a period of time but eventually relented and sent word to Chahine that the majnoun could return to Egypt. Nearly every one of Egypt's most outstanding actors and actresses has been in Chahine's films. Knowing how limited are the resources of his Cairo studio, many acted for free. Some of Egypt's most famous actors and actresses made their debut with Chahine, such as Omar Sharif ne Michel Shalhoub, in the 1954 film, The Blazing Sun. It is hard to imagine any director anywhere with a longer, more consistent and more distinguished record of film making than Youssef Chahine. And the world of international cinema has recognized that fact. 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 36th New York Film Festival in 1998. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1996, Chahine earned a Lifetime Achievement Award. He is the only Egyptian director to have been honored at all three major film festivals Venice, Berlin, and Cannes. Youssef Chahine is currently working on a new film, entitled Haya Fawda! or What a Mess! Yes indeed, what a mess. We are naturally very sorry that for health reasons, Youssef Chahine could not be with us today. We are grateful to his nephew, Gaby Khoury, for bringing us a video-taped message from Youssef Chahine. So now we will be able to judge for ourselves the length of his nose and the size of his ears.

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