These are simply some impressions as this was my introduction to Youssef Chahine, ‘one of Egypt’s greatest directors’ and presented by the Barbican as part of a double feature with Cairo Drive. I hope with respect, I worry about these things and I liked that the film demanded that I worry. It’s short, only 22 minutes, and has a meta-narrative of the filmmaker himself discussing a request from Paris to make a documentary on Cairo and questioning the western gaze. He asks the actors what they think the French want to see: pyramids is the answer, belly dancers, the souk, the Nile. If not tourism than a film of poetic realism, no, social realism. As they speak the film’s subject changes, so in a way it is about all of these things. There is another thread of narrative of a young man recently graduated from college and unemployed, his search for work recurs, as does the face of another student, dedicated leftist in college now turned to fundamentalism — but the lines between what is real and what is acted are blurred and uncertain, much as in life.
What I love most though, is Chahine’s own reflection on Cairo, his love of the city — but that the city is above all its people. He speaks of his love for this people, their character. How their existence in tiny cramped urban spaces means they must learn to get along. There are shots that capture a sense of life in these spaces, fragments of experience and stories in domestic interiors. Others capture something of what it is like to occupy these spaces, to pray in them, to play in them, to search for work in them. They do this with great effectiveness — I think this is partly because these are things the director has approached with love, but there are technical aspects to it I need to think through more. The power of some of the images is one way:
The above screen shot is from a blog called the Cairobserver — I found it looking for images, read it, recognised its awesomeness and aspired briefly to such heights. This blog will probably never reach them. It looks at the way this film problematises the rapid development of Cairo, the way speculation started eating up agricultural land, creating issues of overcrowding and (non) sustainability, where international markets and government policies have worked to destroy support for farming and Egypt’s production of its own food. Real Estate people and residents being evicted both speak directly to the camera with the assumption that you are on their side.
And then back to fundamentalism, life in the city, a hint of the first gulf war (it is 1991). It was a joy to see Cairo through the eyes of someone who knows it, loves it, is aware of the limiting orientalist vision of others and escapes those limits.
For more on Chahine himself I have copied a short bio, it can be found with a listing of his films with some synopsis here.
Chahine was born in 1926 of Christian parents in Alexandria, a sophisticated and multi-cultural city that was to figure prominently in many of his films. From an early age, he was a fan of Hollywood movies, and, as a young man, spent two years studying acting at Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles. As a film director, he was both a social realist and a canny entertainer, fearlessly blending genres to forge his own unique style of story-telling. He even incorporated newsreels, musical numbers, and home movies into his work, notably ALEXANDRIA, WHY?
Themes of openness and tolerance are threaded through Chahine’s work. A pioneer, he often faced opposition, and films including THE SPARROW had been banned in Egypt upon first release. Audiences responded to the overt sensuality of CAIRO STATION by rioting and ripping the seats out of cinemas. Chahine’s frank treatment of sexual relationships and homosexuality was a first in the Arab world, as was the unabashed autobiographical nature of some of his work. A true original, Youssef Chahine told his own story even as he told Egypt’s story in the age of cinema.