Youssef Chahine was the leading voice of the Arab cinema for over half a century – and as prolific, versatile and accomplished as many a more famous western auteur – but his abiding worth, inside Egypt and out, has been in his outspoken expression of the conscience of his country. He took on imperialism and fundamentalism alike, celebrated the liberty of body and soul, and offered himself warts and all as an emblem of his nation. Egypt's modern history is etched in his life's work. Chahine directed his first film, Baba Amin, in 1950, when Egypt was still a British colony. He second, Son of the Nile (1951), was invited to compete in Cannes, and over the following three decades he averaged more than a film a year, ranging from musicals and comedies to neorealist dramas, historical epics, self-portraits and a documentary. Chahine discovered Omar Sharif in a Cairo cafe, and gave him his first acting role in Blazing Sky (1953), as a peasant farm engineer fighting the injustices of a feudal landlord. Jamila, the Algerian (1958) adapted Jacques Vergès' book about the Algerian resistance fighter Djamila Bouhired, shortly after her torture and trial by the French. Chahine's artistic breakthrough came in another film made the same year. Cairo Station distilled the tumult of General Nasser's new republic into an explosive love triangle between three working denizens of the city's bustling railway hub. Chahine, who had trained as an actor, himself played Qinawi, the lame and simple-minded newspaper boy whose frustrated desire for a flirty lemonade girl is fanned into tragedy; according to the director's own reminiscences in An Egyptian Story (1982), he was set to receive the Best Actor prize from the Berlin Film Festival, but some of the jury members doubted that he was merely acting the part of a cripple. Egyptian audiences weren't ready for the film's lively mix of neorealism, noir, sexuality and musical set-pieces, either, and Cairo Station went largely unseen for 20 years. (British audiences were treated to a re-release in 2002, and the film still looks groundbreaking. Evidently the flame of neorealism was blowing into shores much further afield than just France in 1958.) Saladin (1963), a project Chahine inherited, proposed the 12th-century sultan's defence of Jerusalem against the Christian Crusaders as an epic allegory of Nasser's pan-Arab nationalism, though the Catholic Chahine and his leftist writers also cast Saladin as a paragon of peace and religious tolerance. Chahine's relationship with the post-colonial authorities soon turned more critical, however. Once Upon a Time the Nile (1968-78), a documentary of the construction of the Aswan Dam, was delayed for four years by its Egyptian and Soviet sponsors after Chahine steered away from their charter of national myth-making towards a portrait of the dam's impact on individual lives. The Choice (1970) was a murder mystery that suggested Egypt's growing intellectual schisms in the wake of the calamitous Six Day War – a defeat for which The Sparrow (1973) laid the blame squarely on corruption in the political establishment. Sadat's government duly banned the film for two years. Chahine's ability to link the personal and political took another step forward with his autobiographical Alexandria quartet, named after the cosmopolitan city of his birth. Alexandria… Why? (1978) recounted the filmmaking dreams of his teenage alter ego, Yehia, amidst the ambivalently received German occupation of Cairo in 1942: while locals are kidnapping British soldiers, or promising them that "Hitler will turn you into bellydancers", Yehia is dreaming of directing MGM musicals, and various illicit passions flare up between a Jew and a Muslim communist, Yehia's uncle and a young British soldier. It too was widely banned. After a stress-induced sabbatical and open-heart surgery, Chahine dramatised the operation as a trial of Yehia's life in An Egyptian Story (1982), his most Fellini-esque film: accused by his conscience of betraying his youthful idealism, he reviews relationships and career milestones against the backdrop of Egypt's post-war metamorphoses. 1990's Alexandria Again and Forever (1990) was a musical fantasy in which the entire Egyptian film industry goes on hunger strike for democracy.
On Youssef Chahine –
By Nick Bradshaw The Guardian