The output of this preeminent Egyptian filmmaker is in striking contrast to the light musicals which dominate his national industry. From an early age, Youssef Chahine had been enthralled by performing. His father had hoped to secure Chahine's success by sending him to a Catholic primary school and later boarding school in England. At his family's insistence, he enrolled at Alexandria University as an engineering major but eventually persuaded his family to allow him to pursue an acting career. In the mid-1940s, Chahine attended the Pasadena Playhouse where he was befriended by Robert Preston and Victor Jory. When he graduated in 1948, he returned to his homeland and apprenticed with the Italian documentarian Gianni Verniccio.
Chahine directed his first film "Baba Amin/Papa Amin" (1950), a contemporary drama about a middle-class pensioner, inspired by his own father. He first gained a reputation for his incisive social critiques of contemporary Arab society, such as "Ibn al-Nile/Son of the Nile" (1951), about the victimization of the peasants which was one of the first Egyptian films shot on location, and "Sira 'fi'l-wadi/Struggle in the Valley/The Blazing Sky" (1952), which raised social issues about class struggle and also introduced Omar Sharif in the leading role. Subsequently, the writer-director has shown a command of the medium which ranges across all genres. "Sira 'fi'l-mina/Struggle in the Port/Black Water" (1956) was a second examination of social problems through closely investigation of the lives of the working classes. Chahine directed musicals before gaining international attention with "Bab al-Hadid/Cairo Station" (1958), in which he also took a leading role as a crippled news vendor. A study of jealousy and sexual frustration that leads to a murder, the film was shocking to Egyptian audiences and engendered controversy which resulted in its box-office failure.
Patriotism was running high when Chahine filmed the biographical drama "Gamila Buhrayd/Jamila the Algerian" (1958) from a script co-written by Naguib Mahfouz. A baldly political film, it depicted the life story of an Algerian woman active in her country's resistance movement who was captured and tortured by French soldiers. For the next three years, however, the director was forced to helm more commercial material which did not engage him fully. In 1961, the government invited him to direct the historical epic "Al-Nasr Salah al-Din/Saladin" (1962), which was intended to offer the Arab point of view of the Crusades. Chahine injected his own political views, drawing parallels to the Palestinians and stressing Saladin's legacy of justice and tolerance.
Returning to social allegory, Chahine acted in and directed "Fajr yawm jadid/Dawn of a New Day" (1964), a love story between a student (played by the director) and an older married woman. While there was criticism over the film's sentimental elements, it continued thematically in examining the roles of the privileged in building a new social order. As time passed, however, Chahine continued to find himself in conflict with the more restrictive government-backed film industry. He entered into voluntary exile in Lebanon and went on to create what has been termed one of the best musical comedies of the Arab cinema, "Bayya'al-khawatim/The Ring Seller" (1965). He followed with the Lebanese-Egyptian-Spanish co-production "Rimal al-dhahab/Sands of Gold" (1967), a remake of the bullfighting film "Blood and Sand" (1922 and 1941). Delays in filming and the eventual box-office failure of "Sands of Gold" caused the director to return to his native land.
After the Six Day War in 1967, Chahine was selected to helm the first Soviet-Egyptian co-production, "Al-Nas f'il-Nil/People of the Nile/Men and the Nile" (1968-1972), about the building of the Aswan dam. Neither government was pleased with the final results and the film underwent extensive editing before finally being released theatrically in 1972. In the interim, Chahine directed "Al-Ard/The Land/The Earth" (1969), an ambitious adaptation of a popular novel that tied together several of the director's favorite themes. By focusing on rural society in the 1930s, he was able to reflect the various competing interests for the land as well as draw modern parallels to contemporary Arab society. (The film was banned by the Sadat government.) Chahine continued to criticize those in power with the allegorical "al-Ikhtiyar/The Choice" (1970) and the overtly political "al-'Usfur/The Sparrow" (1973), The former dealt with a writer who murders his twin and assumes his identity (symbolizing the split between the intelligentsia and the rest of Egyptian society) while the latter interwove personal stories against the backdrop of the 1967 Six Day War. (It too was banned.)
After the box-office failure of his modern parable 'Awdat al-ibn al-dhal/Return of the Prodigal Son" (1976), Chahine suffered a heart attack and he turned to more autobiographical material, including the trilogy "Iskandariya ... Lih?/Alexandria ... Why?" (1977), "Hadduta misriya/An Egyptian Story" (1982) and "Alexandria Again and Forever" (1990). He returned to the epic form for "Adieu Bonaparte" (1985) which offered an Arab viewpoint on Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. More recently, he fulfilled a lifelong dream of filming the biblical story of Joseph from an Egyptian vantage in "al-Mohager/The Emigrant" (1994). Chahine also once again took on his critics in "al-Massir/Destiny" (1997), which was a direct attack on Islamic fundamentalism through the allegorical tale of the 12th-century philosopher Averroes. He followed up with "The Other" (1999), a political drama addressing such topics, in the words of of The New York Times critic Stephen Holden, "Muslim fundamentalist terrorism, multiculturalism, globalization and political corruption." That film was screened at the New York Film Festival as was the director's fortieth feature, "Silence ... We're Rolling" (2001), a valentine to movie making.
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
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Film Production - Main (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Worked with Egyptian-born Italian documentarist Gianni Vernuccio
Feature directing debut, "Baba Amin/Papa Amin"
Credited with discovering actor Omar Sharif, who made his debut in Chahine's "Struggle in the Valley/The Blazing Sky"
Directed the well received "Bab al-Hadid/Cairo Station"
First screen collaboration with writer Naguib Mahfouz, "Gamila Buhrayed/Jamila the Algerian"
Left country for voluntary exile in Lebanon due to conflict with government film authorities
Made first film in Lebanon, "Bayya' al-khawatim/The Ring Seller"
Directed first Egyptian-Soviet co-production, "Al-Nas fi'l-Nil/People of the Nile/Men of the Nile" (released in 1972)
Formed own production comapny, Misr International Productions
Directed first Egyptian-Algerian co-production, "Al Usfur/The Sparrow"
Filmed "Alexandria...Why?" the first installment in what would prove to be an autobiographic quartet
Continued autobiographical filmmaking with "Hadduta misriya/An Egyptian Story"
Wrote (also directed) "Adieu Bonaparte" about Napoleon's Egyptian campaign
Helmed third autobiographical film, "Alexandria, Again and Again"
Scripted (also directed) "The Emmigrant" a story inspired by the Biblical character of Joseph, son of Jacob
Co-wrote and directed a biographical feature about the Muslim philosopher Averroes, "Al Massir/Destiny"
Honored at the Cannes Film Festival for the body of his work
Subject of a retrospective at the New York Film Festival
Helmed "L'Autre/El Akhar/The Other"; screened at the New York Film Festival
Completed the last of his autobiographic films "Alexandria...New York"
Final film before his death, "This Is Chaos"