Youssef Chahine by Ibrahim Fawal

Pamela Nice

Youssef Chahine

By Ibrahim Fawal
British Film Institute, 2001, 240 pp.

After more than 50 years of filmmaking-34 feature films and six documentaries-and having received the Cannes Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997, Egyptian film maker Youssef Chahine finally has a book in English about his cinematic achievements. Ibrahim Fawal's "Youssef Chahine" is a welcome overview of Chahine's life and work, published as part of the British Film Institute's World Directors series.

This is a good introduction to Chahine's oeuvre, and works best by setting Chahine's films in the context of his life and the political landscape of Egypt. What emerges is a picture of a brilliant director, often misunderstood and controversial, who is both prolific and pragmatic. He has created films in a variety of genres, often attempting to present his own life as a microcosm of contemporary Egypt. Whether or not Chahine is a great director is perhaps debatable to some, but not to the author. His views of Chahine's artistic merit are grounded in a profound admiration for Chahine's persistence, originality, and consistent humanistic values.

Fawal presents the Egyptian cultural background for Chahine's work in an introduction that touches on 19th and 20th century Egyptian politics; the influence of European art forms such as the novel and drama; the development of indigenous theater and the Arab novel in the 20th century; and the role of radio in popularizing the Egyptian dialect and idiom in the Arab world, paving the way for the widespread popularity of the Egyptian cinema.

Two chapters are devoted to Chahine's biography and significant events in the Arab world that are reflected in his films, such as the 1967 War. Fawal sees Chahine as an outsider who nevertheless identifies passionately with Egypt and its struggles in the late 20th century. Born of Lebanese and Greek parents into the Mediterranean culture of Alexandria, being a Christian in a Muslim country, and jointly producing his later films with French companies, Chahine has faced charges of being too Western, secular, and bourgeois to speak for the Egyptian masses. This does not prevent him from continuing to address, in an intensely personal way, the issues that confront contemporary Egypt.

Fawal gives extensive attention to 14 of Chahine's major films, dividing them into four basic categories: social dramas and melodramas; wartime and postwar films; the autobiographical (Alexandria) trilogy; and historical films. Among the films analyzed are "Bab al-Hadid" ("Cairo Station," 1958); "Al-Nasir Salah al-Din" ("Saladin," 1963);"Al-Ard" ("The Land," 1969); "Al-Usfur" ("The Sparrow," 1973); the Alexandria Trilogy (1978-89); "Al-Mujahir"("The Emigrant," 1994); and "Al-Masir" ("Destiny," 1997).

For each of the 14 films, Fawal describes the plot in great detail, mentions some aspect of Chahine's cinematic technique in the film, and gives sample responses from European and Arab critics. His detailed attention to the major films will be most helpful to those with a limited exposure to Chahine's work.

There is nothing new in Fawal's description of Chahine's cinematic style: this has already been explored in various articles and books, such as Viola Shafik's "Arab Cinema." The hallmarks of this style are seen to be the mixing of genres (e.g., musical, newsreel, love story); the frenetic pace and non-linear plot structures; and the juxtaposition of the personal with the historical and political.

One might wish for a more rigorous critique of this style, however. For instance, one of the most interesting segments of the book explores Chahine's difficulty in finding his audience: "Two complaints are often leveled against Chahine: His films are either too obscure for an Arab audience, or too parochial for Western comprehension." Fawal suggests that Chahine's own attitude toward his audience may be to blame. He quotes Chahine as having said to him, "I make my films first for myself. Then for my family. Then for Alexandria. Then for Egypt. And if the Arab world likes them, ahlan wa sahlan [welcome]. And if the foreign audience likes them--they are doubly welcome."

This rather sanguine attitude is belied by Chahine's oft-stated complaint that Western critics have slighted his achievements. Other third world filmmakers have been able to transcend cultural boundaries, and Fawal offers no reason why Chahine does not, except that Chahine has the "political baggage" of being Arab. This seems too simplistic. Perhaps the "parochial" aspect of his films needs more attention: there are ways of presenting local matters that are not opaque to the outsider. Do Chahine's stories rely too much on assumed cultural knowledge?

There is also a troubling omission in Fawal's understanding of the auteur role that he ascribes to Chahine. Though he sees this role as "the final arbiter of all the creative decisions that go into making his films," this should not imply that Chahine's films are created only by Chahine. This is particularly true of the contribution of actors; as Fawal himself claims, "the actor is at the heart of Chahine's cinematic vision." Several actors reinforced this idea when speaking with Fawal.

If this is so, why are the actors almost never mentioned in the analysis of the films, even when Fawal spends significant time describing the effect of a central character, such as Bahiyya, in "The Sparrow"? The cinematic effects he describes are often the effects of acting skill, and the actors aren't even named, though they are listed in the filmography at the end of the book. Fawal gives little attention to acting; there are even glaring mistakes, such as stating that Chahine played himself in "Hadduta Misriyya" ("An Egyptian Story"). The role of Chahine's alter-ego in that film was actually played by Nour el-Cherif, a prominent Egyptian actor. El-Cherif was even shown in a photo in the same chapter, but not identified.

The photos are in fact very sloppily handled in the book. Actors or characters are almost never identified, nor are the title of the film or its date of release given. Hopefully this can be corrected in future editions of the book.

The filmography at the end of the book is extremely helpful, listing the production personnel, the cast, producers, and sometimes distributors for each film. Since, as Fawal notes, Chahine is relatively unknown in both Britain and the United States, it would have helped to state explicitly which of the films are available with English subtitles. That might encourage readers to obtain or request Chahine's films for local film festivals, art houses, or universities, hopefully redressing the current ignorance about Chahine in the English-speaking world.

This review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 41 (Fall 2002)

Copyright (c) 2002 by Al Jadid