Where to begin with Youssef Chahine

A beginner’s path through the work of one of the Arab world’s most internationally celebrated filmmakers – Egyptian master Youssef Chahine.

23 August 2021

By Leila Latif

The Land (1969)

Why this might not seem so easy

One of the few Egyptian filmmakers to gain an international audience in his lifetime, Alexandria-born director Youssef Chahine enjoyed a long career stretching from the 1950s golden age, when the Egyptian national industry was one of the biggest in the world, right up into the new millennium.

In Chahine’s era, Egyptian cinema had a reputation for being able to churn out ostentatious melodramas at an incredible pace, but his work stood apart for its artistic personality, empathy and willingness to tackle daring subject matter. His films were beloved in Egypt but also stoked controversy with their portrayals of sexuality, capitalism, gender, corruption and religious extremism. His filmography comprises roughly 40 features, covering a wide range of tones, subjects and genres, but often united by the sensitive approach in which Chahine shows both the societal and personal complexities at play.

Long before he received a lifetime achievement award at Cannes in 1997, his films were fixtures on the international festival circuit. As early as 1952, Son of the Nile played in competition at Cannes and Venice, and his films were in contention for the Palme d’Or many times. Happily, this western interest in his work is being revived today, with restored versions of many of his films being made available on both Netflix and in an upcoming season on Mubi. With so much of vintage African and Arabic cinema inaccessible to us, for myriad reasons, this sudden glut of Chahine’s finest films online is cause for celebration. 

The best place to start – The Land

1969’s The Land is among Chahine’s most rewarding films, playing to his strengths as a filmmaker. This rural epic takes place in an Egyptian village in the early 1930s, a time when Egypt was theoretically independent but still entangled with serving British interests. The inciting incident is the news that the already overstretched farmers will have the water supply for their crops halved – a move that will destroy their livelihoods and their community. Placing their trust in the wrong people to help them, the community finds themselves under further threat from corruption and urbanisation.

The Land (1969)

Chahine’s film has extraordinary complexity, both in depicting the huge number of competing influences on Egyptian society and the way the social dynamics play out between each character, with each relationship fully realised. Chahine is able to inspire, by showing the villagers standing side by side, but also admits that political oppression will not always unite the dispossessed. With wonderful performances from Hamdy Ahmed, Mahmoud Al Meleji, Ezzat El Alaili and Nagwa Ibrahim, each character is fascinating but flawed. Chahine affords these rural citizens the full focus and dignity of humanity.

What to watch next 

Cairo Station (1958) is Chahine’s most celebrated work, and it’s not hard to see why. Filmed at the eponymous rail depot, it finds Chahine adopting a gritty, street-level style inspired by Italian neorealism, yet morphing genres from searing social commentary to Hitchcockian thrills. Chahine himself plays a disabled newspaper seller in a station filled with porters, drink sellers and beggars who are largely ignored by the sharp-suited middle classes. Cairo Station layers in themes such as post-colonial corruption and the importance of unions, but perhaps most radically for the time it also has an entirely non-judgmental view on pre-marital sex. That progressive outlook led to the film being banned in Egypt for more than a decade, even though the act itself takes place entirely off screen. 

Cairo Station (1958)

Devastating human tragedy is the focus of 1976’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. Only loosely based on the biblical story, it’s a heartbreaking musical about a family’s tragic fate after their son returns to their village, having failed to make a success of himself in Cairo. True to Chahine’s method, the film speaks to a broader political context of the time, with a fractured Arab world looking for a saviour who is doomed to fail to unite them, with economic structures crushing anyone who dares to enrich themselves beyond their class ceiling. It’s a film with a viscerally brutal conclusion. 

Alexandria… Why? (1979) and An Egyptian Story (1982) are essential for anyone interested in the man himself. These are the most striking of a number of films in which – in a Fellini-esque move – Chahine turned the camera on his own life. Alexandria… Why? is a sprawling coming-of age drama chronicling Chahine’s adolescence in Alexandria, with an unusual warmth suggesting Chahine’s nostalgia for his youth. The film audaciously includes Chahine’s bisexuality, which breezily exists on screen without apology. In An Egyptian Story, Chahine continues to blend personal history and political allegory, cutting between fiction and documentary to tell his story as a filmmaker while – in the present day – he’s laid up recovering from heart surgery. Together the two films form a joyful and fascinating self-portrait.

Alexandria... Why? (1979)

An earlier Chahine film that’s worth seeking out is The Blazing Sun (1954). A social melodrama that foreshadows The Land in its story of landlords feuding with tenant farmers, it contains the first role for Omar Sharif, whose star power and hypnotic presence are evident from the moment he steps into frame.

Where not to start

At over three hours, Chahine’s lavish historical epic Saladin the Victorious (1963) is a bit of a slog, uncompromisingly painting the 12th-century ruler as an ubermensch. Adapted from Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz’s novel, the film had an unprecedented budget for the time, supported in part by Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser and acting as pan-Arabian quasi-propaganda. Although it stands as a rare filmic depiction of the Crusades through an Arab lens, it looks stodgy and conventional in comparison with the distinctiveness and wisdom of Chahine’s more personal work.

A season of Youssef Chahine films plays at BFI Southbank in July 2023, with a selection also available on BFI Player from 3 July.

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