Posted by Susan Doll on January 16, 2017
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.
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 . . . .”
Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.
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