The Egyptian Master: Youssef Chahine

During Films from the South, November 26–December 6, you can catch three films from the Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine, who delivered ambitious and artistic films throughout his six-decade long career. The series is a collaboration with the Oslo Cinemateque.

Youssef Chahine (1926-2008) is the director who made Egyptian film internationally renowned. Chahine masterfully managed to mirror the enormous social and political upheaval of Egyptian society through his films, and until his death in 2008 he was a strong voice in the fight against extremism and totalitarian rule. If you want to understand Egypt's modern history, Chahine's films are a good place to start.


His debut film Daddy Amin was made in 1950, when Egypt was still a kingdom led by King Farouk. Already the following year, Chahine followed up with Son of the Nile, which was internationally acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival. Chahine is also known for being the man who discovered Omar Sharif himself, and gave him his first acting role in The Blazing Sun (1953). Sharif later had an international career and is known for his roles in classics as Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. Many of Chahine's early melodramas were loved in the Arab region and reflected the director's penchant for American genre traditions.

Chahine's definitive breakthrough came in 1958 with the film Cairo Station. The social realism-drama taking place at the capital's train station was so explicit that the film was hardly screened in the early years after it was made. After Cairo Station, Chahine's career gained full speed, and over the next few decades he directed films in a variety of genres such as musical, comedy, historical epics and biographies.


Watching Chahine's films is like traveling through Egypt's modern history. The 1960s were characterized by the director's belief in a political collaboration between all the Arabic-speaking countries based on the notion of one Arab nation with a common culture, also known as the Pan-Arab Movement. This was visible in films such as Saladin (1963), which addressed the Sultan Saladin's struggle during the Third Crusade against Jerusalem in the 12th century. The film served as an image of Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his policies. Using historical events to illuminate the contemporary was something Chahine continued to do in later films such as Destiny (1997).

After Nasser's death in 1970, Chahine’s work became more and more critical towards the Egyptian government under the leadership of President Anwar al-Sadat. Sadat turned the country’s economic policy away from Nasser's socialist course, and also facilitated a later peace agreement with Israel. Films such as The Choice (1970) and The Sparrow (1973), made in the wake of the Six-Day War against Israel, expressed growing confusion and anxiety in the Arab region.


Eventually, Youssef Chahine also turned his gaze towards himself. This became the starting point for the Alexandria trilogy, where Chahine allowed his alter ego Yehia to represent different aspects of his own personality. The first film, Alexandria... Why? (1979), is about the director's dream of making musicals in Hollywood. In the second film, An Egyptian Story (1982), we meet Yehia midway through life as he undergoes a heart operation. In the final chapter, Alexandria Again and Forever (1990), Chahine himself plays Yehia, who fantasizes about his young male co-star (played by the actor who previously played Yehia). This became an important queer representation in Arab cinema and is interpreted by many as a reference to Chahine's own bisexuality.

In his last film Chaos, he returned to his hometown Cairo. The film premiered in 2007, while Chahine himself fell ill, and made a timely critique of the ever-growing fundamentalism and police brutality of the country. The following year Chahine died unaware that the uprising he had foreseen in several of his films would escalate sharply with the Arab Spring in 2011.

The series is a collaboration between Arab Film Days, Films From the South and the Oslo Cinemateque. All screenings have English subtitles. The full festival programme, schedule and ticket sales will be posted on the Films from the South website on November 5.

The series consists of the following titles:

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Cairo Station (1958)

Cairo Station is seen as the most influential Arab film ever and is Chahine’s great breakthrough film. It is a psychological melodrama, with Chahine himself in the leading role as the newspaper salesman Qinawi, who is sexually attracted to the soda seller Hanuma. The story in its entirety plays out at a train station in Cairo, a micro cosmos mirroring the Egyptian society. The film, which competed for the Golden Bear prize at the Berlin Film Festival, clearly drew inspiration from Italian neo-realism.

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Alexandria... Why? (1979)

Chahine takes on an autobiographical focus in the film trilogy named after his birth city Alexandria. The first film of the trilogy, Alexandria... Why?, takes place during the second world war, and introduces us to Chahine’s alter ego, the young actor Yehia, who is obsessed with Hollywood films. The film shows the diversity of the Egyptian society through an episodical narrative style. This is a very interesting film both in plot and form and is to this day one of Chahine’s most recognized films internationally.

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Saladin (1963)

The historical epic Saladin is Chahine’s only film where the dialogue is in Fusha (ancient Arabic) and is without doubt the director’s most splendid film. The story takes place in the 12th century under the third crusade, and is an epic about the sultan Saladin’s defense of Jerusalem against the Christian crusaders. The film was released in-between the two wars with Israel, and many read the film as an image of the politics run by president Gamal Abdel Nasser and his effort for a pan-Arabic movement.