Born into a multilingual family in cosmopolitan Alexandria, Egypt, Youssef Chahine (1926-2008) quickly emerged as one of the key figures of Arab cinema, a courageous nationalist and humanist whose work ranges across the musical, melodrama, comedy, the historical epic and highly cinematic forms of autobiography.
Educated in theatre and TV in California, Chahine returned to Egypt to work in publicity for 20th Century-Fox before starting his directorial career as a 23-year-old in 1950. With the fall of the Egyptian monarchy and the rise to power of Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, Chahine’s work increasingly fused together popular forms of entertainment with social, cultural and political themes. Chahine was central in launching the career of Omar Sharif, and his reputation was made by the release of the exuberant, bittersweet, neorealist Cairo Station in 1958. His vaunted subsequent reputation rests on a series of pan-Arab, pro-reform and explicitly nationalist films he made in the 1960s such as Saladin and The Land, movies that light on the struggle of peasants and peoples against feudal landlords and foreign invaders, as well as the quartet of autobiographical works he made in the final three decades of his career.
Directing over 40 films across six decades, Chahine’s sometimes controversially secular cinema reveals a committed, deeply cinephilic, internationalist, sexually adventurous, explicitly non-fundamentalist and anti-colonial sensibility.
7:00pm CAIRO STATION
Youssef Chahine (1958) 74 mins – Unclassified 15 +
The film that established Chahine’s international reputation. This unbridled psychosexual character study – set entirely in and around Cairo’s central train station – was so shocking it was banned in Egypt for two decades. The director stars as a shy, disabled newspaper vendor whose innocent crush on a lemonade seller (Hind Rostom, the “Marilyn Monroe of Arabia”) slowly evolves into a dangerous obsession. Starting as a textured and humanistic examination of a society experiencing tumultuous social change, it transforms into a mixture of florid melodrama and populist tragedy.
8:25pm THE LAND
Youssef Chahine (1969) 130 mins – Unclassified 15 +
A community of impoverished farmers living on the Nile Delta in the 1930s draw up a petition to stop their exploitation by major landowners and ensure the irrigation of their land. Chahine’s deeply committed and full-blooded agrarian portrait is a potent mix of melodrama, agit-prop and social realism. Widely championed by the Arab left, it is one of Chahine’s most enduring and important films. Adapted from a seminal novel by Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi published just after Egypt’s 1952 revolution, it gives voice to the defining struggles engulfing the nation.
7:00pm ALEXANDRIA… WHY?
Youssef Chahine (1979) 133 mins – Unclassified 15 +
The first film in Chahine’s “Alexandria quartet” follows a young aspiring director enamoured with Hollywood and privately evaluating his current identity and circumstances. Examining Egypt’s political and social tensions, as well as the country’s contradictory relationship to America, Chahine’s partly autobiographical, highly cinephilic fiction combines archival footage with a fantastical vision of World War II-era Egypt. Sparking controversy and government censorship, it won the Silver Bear – Special Jury Prize at the Berlinale.
9:25pm MY ONE AND ONLY LOVE
Youssef Chahine (1957) 110 mins – Unclassified 15 +
Fondly remembered as one of the funniest and most energetic of all Egyptian musicals, this critically overlooked Chahine feature presents the filmmaker at his most brazenly entertaining. A Lubitsch-esque satire about a man and woman forced into a marriage of convenience who gradually fall in love with each other, it marked Chahine’s second and last collaboration with Farid al-Atrash and Shadia, each providing performances that show them at their comic peak. With Hind Rostom.
Youssef Chahine (1963) 186 mins – Unclassified 15 +
Chahine’s epic depiction of the titular 12th-century Sultan begins with his armies’ conquest of Jerusalem to counter the persecution of Muslim pilgrims. The ensuing Third Crusade pits his forces against invading European Christians led by Richard the Lionheart. Often seen as an allegory of, or tribute to, Egypt’s heroic pan-Arabist President Gamal Abdel Nasser, an angle no doubt accentuated by the filmmakers to secure the co-operation of the Egyptian Government and military in the production of such a hugely expensive, widescreen spectacle. The film is remarkable for the way it captures the fervent, post-colonialist spirit of the times, an Arab world looking to counter then-prevalent Hollywood international historical blockbusters with an alternative narrative while emulating their grand, overblown style.