Youssef Chahine: Communicating with Humanity

CAIRO_STATION_1979_Chahine with knife email

One of the best perks of going to college back in the day was the campus film series. Each weekend, I eagerly attended the movie of the week, which could be a Hollywood classic, a recent popular movie or a foreign film. The campus film program was my introduction to international classics by Bergman, Fellini, Bresson and many others. Not having any control over the programming forced me to expand my personal canvas, reshaping my tastes and introducing me to the art and cultures of other lands. My friends and I were always excited to see a movie we knew nothing about it.

It occurred to me that FilmStruck is a streaming equivalent to the campus film series: For just a few bucks, viewers can escape the confines of their tastes and experiences and select an eye-opening film outside their comfort zone.

If you want to program your own movie series in the coziness of your living room, the films of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, which are being offered on FilmStruck until June, will make a good start. Though never well known in the United States, Chahine was Egypt’s most famous director for decades. The Egyptian film industry matured in the years after WWII; at one point, it was so successful that Cairo was dubbed “the Hollywood of the Arab cinema.” Since then, Egyptian cinema has had its ups and downs, with production dropping in the 1970s, soaring in the 1980s and faltering again during the 1990s because of video piracy. Through it all, Chahine managed to direct award-winning films of merit and distinction, at times single-handedly representing the filmmaking of his country and his continent.

ALEXANDRIA_WHY_1979_Naglaa Fathy_retrospective

Born in 1926, Youssef Chahine grew up amidst the chaos of WWII and the Arab-Israeli tension of the postwar era. Despite the friction and conflict, he received a good education at a French missionary school, followed by a stint at Victoria College and then one year at the University of Alexandria. Victoria College had a reputation as a cosmopolitan institution that advocated tolerance and acceptance, which had an impact on the young Chahine. He also loved Hollywood movies in general and Gene Kelly in particular, and in the late 1940s, he came to America to study at the Pasadena Playhouse. There he was befriended by actors Robert Preston and Victor Jory.

Graduating from the Playhouse in 1948, Chahine returned to Egypt to try to break into the film industry with his first script, Son of the Nile. He did not have much luck, but he managed to get work on some Italian productions, including serving as an assistant cameraman to cinematographer Alvise Orfanelli. Orfanelli introduced Chahine to the Zeyad Production Co., and the Egyptian-based film company hired the novice filmmaker to direct Daddy Amin (1950). The success of Daddy Amin led the company to produce Son of the Nile (1951), and Chahine’s directing career took off via a series of genre films designed to entertain Egyptian audiences.

Chahine is sometimes referred to as “the man who discovered Omar Sharif.” Before the dashing Sharif galloped across the desert in 70mm splendor to rescue Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or swept Barbra Streisand off her feet in Funny Girl (1968), he was a popular star in his native Egypt, having made 22 films, three of them with Chahine. Some accounts claim that Chahine first saw the handsome young man hanging out at an outdoor café in Cairo, but that sounds a bit like a “Lana Turner was discovered on a stool at Schwab’s” story, so I am skeptical. After being tapped by Chahine to star in The Blazing Sky in 1953, Sharif fell in love with his leading lady, Faten Hamama, much to the delight of Egyptian film fans. When they married in 1955, their relationship generated the kind of excitement and publicity in Egypt that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would in America. Sharif was lucky for Chahine: The Blazing Sky was a pan-Arabic hit as well as Egypt’s entry into the Cannes International Film Festival. Sharif starred in the director’s next two films, Demon in the Desert (1954, aka Devil in the Desert) and Dark Waters (1956). Unfortunately, Chahine’s three films with Sharif are not part of FilmStruck’s offerings.

Chahine’s attraction to Hollywood films influenced his early work. His melodramas and thrillers were patterned after the tight narrative structures and fast pacing of Hollywood films, while his experiences as an actor at the Pasadena Playhouse helped him give credible performances in his films. However, at the end of the 1950s, his style transformed, revealing the influence of Italian Neorealism. He became interested in stories about economic disparity involving socially marginal characters, which resulted in one of his best films, Cairo Station (1958), which is available on FilmStruck. Set in Cairo’s main railroad station, the story involves the everyday lives of the baggage carriers, paper sellers, and soft-drink peddlers who scratch out a meager living. Chahine himself costars in the film as a handicapped newspaper peddler who loves the saucy girl selling lemonade.


During the 1970s, his style evolved again. He explored the use of fragmented structures, with flashbacks and montages of random and disparate images. Some claim that a heart attack influenced this new style, but European and American directors from this same time frame were pushing the boundaries of established filmmaking styles and techniques. It was an era of exploration and experimentation, and Chahine’s work fit right in, including his 1979 autobiographical masterwork Alexandria Why?, also available on FilmStruck. Set in Chahine’s hometown during WWII, Alexandria Why? tells the story of an aristocrat who lures English soldiers to their deaths as Rommel’s army approaches the city. One of the characters in the film is a young Egyptian who is conflicted: He loves his country, but he also loves the culture of the West, including Shakespeare and American movies. Alexandria Why? was banned in some Arab countries, but that did not deter Chahine. It became the first in a series of autobiographical films that also included An Egyptian Story (1982) and Alexandria Again and Forever (1989, both available on FilmStruck) and Alexandria . . . New York (2004).


Chahine was a true auteur who depicted the dreams and fears of a country whose popular culture and entertainment traditions are unknown in the U.S. And, yet, many of his films are universal so that the characters are relatable and their problems familiar, reflecting Chahine’s statement, “I would like to be able to communicate with all of humanity . . . .”

Susan Doll

10 Responses Youssef Chahine: Communicating with Humanity
Posted By Marjorie J. Birch : January 16, 2017 6:15 pm

The campus film series. Ain’t the the truth… ain’t it the truth… how I loved them, how they educated me. In the age of Netflix and DVDs, do these programs still exist?

Posted By AL : January 16, 2017 6:58 pm

Do The Campus Film Series still exist? Good question. Anybody got an answer? I was lucky. I lived and worked in Berkeley while attending college. I worked for Pauline Kael, making our own “one-sheets” to display at her 2 theatres on Telegraph Ave (“The Cinema Guild And Studio”) one block from the UC campus. I was also the janitor! I met Pauline on the phone when I was 14 and I was thrilled to discover that there were actual adults who shared what I had thought was a childish hobby/passion. She became my Mentor. For real. I practically lived at her “kooky” home. She changed my life and was a tremendous influence…

Posted By Susan Doll : January 16, 2017 8:04 pm

Marjorie and AL: A fellow film teacher and I are trying to resurrect the campus film series at Ringling College. Every Thurs. night for 10 weeks, we show a classic or foreign film. This semester we decided to do a theme: Movies About the Movies. I am trying to increase our attendance; we average 25. Our biggest attendance was for the original Godzilla. We had over 40. Wish us luck.

Posted By swac44 : January 17, 2017 11:36 am

It was the campus film series in the ’70s at Dalhousie University that led its organizers to start their own rep house theatre in Halifax in the 1980s, the late, lamented Wormwood’s Dog & Monkey Cinema (named after a traveling vaudeville show that brought Edwin S. Porter to Nova Scotia in the early 1900s). More recently, a group of young organizers have started up the weekly Carbon Arc Cinema screenings at our local Natural History Museum, featuring the best of international, independent features and docs, so the spirit lives on.

Posted By EricJ : January 18, 2017 5:39 pm

@Marjorie – College town arthouse theaters–where you can find them (I’m lucky to be near Amherst, MA)–still have theme retrospectives of classics, but as far as campus theaters?

Me, I remember taking a semester of film at NYC and Boston, back in the days just before VCR, when class screenings meant all piling into the big campus screen-presentation theater. There’s an experience of watching a movie with an all-smart audience, all trying to analyze why it’s a good movie.
I’ve used that experience to blog about why Filmstruck–and Netflix, back when it was disk-by-mail–is the New Film School, but the important part of class is not assuming that EVERYTHING you can dig up is holy and praiseworthy, and not everything you “shouldn’t” dig up isn’t.
It’s just taking the role of a college-town theater that could show Bergman, or could show Godzilla.

Posted By AL : January 18, 2017 7:18 pm

the best film about film is THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. Aside from the facts that it is brilliantly photographed, has one of the very best scores of all time, is well cast and acted, and is well written, has great dialogue and Cool costumes. It’s like the ALL ABOUT EVE of Hollywood, and it uses the same framework to tell it’s story. Also, it’s not the story of Vicky Lester or Norma Desmond, it’s about HOLLYWOOD and it takes place during The Golden Age and it covers virtually ALL aspects of film making…
My only b**ch with this brilliant film is that it was unfairly awarded Jean Hagen’s Ocscar…

Posted By George : January 19, 2017 4:02 pm

Nashville still has a thriving cinephile scene, with the Belcourt Theater showing new indie and foreign films, and retrospectives of classics. When the documentary DE PALMA screened there, they had a festival of about a dozen De Palma films. And there are screenings at the local college campuses.

Unfortunately, midnight movies now consist largely of teen comedies from the ’80s and ’90s, and the “immortal” GOONIES and SPACE JAM. That seems to be what the collegiate audience wants — movies they saw as kids and feel nostalgic about. The kind of weird, off-the-wall films that used to dominate midnight showings (ERASERHEAD, anyone?) no longer draws big crowds. At least not here.

Posted By EricJ : January 19, 2017 6:12 pm

@George – It’s also the only “classic” movies that studios create 21st-cty. digital prints anymore–If Warner sends “Space Jam” to revival theaters, it’s not because anyone wants to SEE it. (It’s because they think we’ve “forgotten” Bugs Bunny, and that Jam is their last/only/most “reliable” way of exploiting the characters.)
One of the biggest blows to the college classic-screening circuit was not only the loss of 35 and 16mm film, but studios (like, ahem, Warner) who don’t believe the majority of their audience knows or cares about any digital-print restored classic movies before 1985, and would prefer to see Ferris Bueller, Princess Bride or Back to the Future instead.
Anything else, they can just rent the disk…Oops, wait, sorry “disk is dead”, forgot about that, guess you’re stuck.

Posted By George : January 19, 2017 7:34 pm

EricJ: I heard that the local midnight showing of SPACE JAM was packed. Nostalgic twenty-somethings who saw it as kids in 1996 turned out in force. This weekend’s midnight movie at the Belcourt is the director’s cut of THE EXORCIST.

The theater is also having a “widescreen musical” festival, including GUYS AND DOLLS, FUNNY GIRL, CARMEN JONES, A STAR IS BORN (1954 version) and THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT. So they can get movies made before 1985. No idea if they’re digital or film, but the Belcourt still shows movies on film whenever possible.

Posted By swac44 : January 19, 2017 11:35 pm

We used to be lucky where I live because another university in Manitoba had a sizable 16mm print collection, everything from Duck Soup to Yojimbo, that it would share with other institutions, like universities, art galleries and National Film Board theatres across the country. Unfortunately, their generosity came to a halt either due to funding cutbacks, or some prints getting damaged or going missing (depending on which story you hear, or maybe it’s a combo of both). It’s especially sad with most of the major studios dumping their Canadian 35mm film libraries years ago.

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