Acclaimed Egyptian film-maker Youssef Chahine died July 27, leaving a legacy of four decades of filmmaking and more than 40 critically acclaimed movies.
Chahine suffered a brain haemorrhage in late June and was flown to France for treatment. After nearly three weeks in a coma, he regained consciousness and had recovered enough to return to Egypt just 10 days before his death. Chahine is survived by his French wife Colette.
Considered by many to be the most internationally acclaimed of Arab film-makers, Chahine continuously pushed artistic and social boundaries in the conservative Egyptian cinema, addressing difficult issues such as political corruption, sexual morality and religious fundamentalism.
“Youssef Chahine is definitely the most important Egyptian director of our modern cinema history,” says Hany Seif, Nile TV presenter and aspiring actor. “I’ve always been amazed by his visual techniques, the way he frames the shot, the details of every scene and the movement of the actors in big productions such as Al-Massir (Destiny) and Al-Mohager (The Emigrant).”
Born to a Coptic family in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1926, Chahine attended the prestigious Victoria College, after which he moved to the U.S. to study acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. After returning to his native land, he directed his first movie Baba Amin in 1950, followed by a string of monumental movies about Egyptian society, including Bab Al-Hadid (Cairo Central Station), Al-Ard (The Land) and Siraa fil Wadi (The Blazing Sky), which helped launch the career of the then-unknown Omar Sharif.
Chahine’s movies gave gritty, realistic depictions of the lowest in Egyptian society, which did not always sit well with mainstream audiences. Al-Asfour (The Sparrow) attacks Egyptian corruption, blaming it for the defeat in the 1967 Six Day War against Israel. Bab Al-Hadid shocked viewers by its raw violence and sympathetic portrayal of a “fallen woman.” In 1994, Al-Mohager created heated controversy and was banned by an Egyptian court due to its portrayal of the prophet Joseph. The depiction of prophets is banned in most interpretations of Islam.
Ahmed El Lozy, an assistant director at Chahine’s production company, Misr International Films believes that Chahine always tried to push the medium to its maximum.
“As a storyteller he understood how to tell a particular type of story using cinematic means, and [he] has crossed all genres,” says El Lozy, “He doesn’t impose a style on a story but lets the story dictate the style.”
Undisturbed with his lack of commercial success, Chahine continuously experimented with different genres from epics to musicals to murder mysteries.
“Chahine didn’t take the easy approach to filmmaking,” says film critic Sherif Awad, “The market didn’t compel him to make commercial movies; he made whatever he wanted and sought finance through his company and other production collaborations for his art.”
His last movie, 2007’s Heya Fawda (This is Chaos) is a sharp criticism of corruption and the Egyptian government’s crackdown on democracy activists. It was co-directed with his protégé Khaled Youssef, who had to complete filming once Chahine fell ill.
Throughout his career, Chahine collaborated with acclaimed writers such as Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, and helped launch the careers of several prominent actors such as Hany Salama and directors such as Youssry Nasrallah.
His eclectic work gained a large following in Europe, and in 1997, Chahine received a lifetime achievement award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Twenty-seven year old actress Yara Goubran hopes that future generations of directors will live up to Chahine’s legacy. “Directors are the ones who lead the way in everything,” she says, “from the acting style to the dialogue to the filming itself. That’s why so many mainstream actors who’ve worked with him act completely differently in his movies than their usual style. It shows just how distinctive and influential his directing is.”
“As a director, he had a strong sense of how to use pictures to tell a story,” El Lozy says, “Not everything is explained in a Chahine film but it comes across through purely cinematic means. There are no long scenes of people sitting down and talking. Instead, you have the story being told without being told.”