By Kamran Rastegar, Lecturer in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Edinburgh
In 1998, Youssef Chahine spoke at a Film Studies class in a university in New York City – his film, Al-Masir (Destiny), had just been featured at the New York Film Festival and the students of this class had seen the film. Al-Masir is a fictionalised account of the life of the Arab Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes) recounting his intellectual struggle to promote reason over religious literalism. The film treated this historical episode as a parable concerning the spread of fundamentalist politics in the contemporary Arab world, and, through musical scenes and fantastic swordplay, ends with a call for the rejection of religious literalism.
One student asked the director if the film aimed to promote “tolerance”. Chahine chuckled and replied by noting that in his view “tolerance” is a typically Western notion – he would prefer to have the film seen as promoting respect and reciprocity for religious and cultural difference, something much more meaningful that simply adopting a tolerance for others. He went on to say that his understanding of Ibn Rushd was that he represented that dimension of Arab-Islamic civilisation which flourished not simply on tolerance, but on active engagement with religious and cultural Others, and which promoted this engagement through rationalism and science.
By citing this ideal, Chahine was possibly also tapping memories of the Alexandria of his childhood, where he grew up in a mixed Syrian-Greek Christian family – the Alexandria which would serve as the setting for the films in his “Alexandria Trilogy”.
But it would be wrong to call Chahine a romantic nostalgist – his Alexandria, a place of respect and reciprocity for Others, served more as an ideal that could be reached only through political and social struggle. This sense of commitment and engagement serves as one of the few threads by which we may try to tie together his very diverse oeuvre.
While his films ranged in style from neo-realist to epic and from surreal to melodrama, one could always rely upon Chahine’s personal engagement to be reflected within their frames. His films also consistently addressed issues of specific concern to a progressive Egyptian artist such as gender equality, acceptance of non-normative sexualities, and the destruction of class distinctions and prejudices.
There are certain films by Chahine that are viewed by many as successfully bringing a wide range of these themes together – one of these most certainly must be el-Ard (The Land, 1969), one of the classics of Egyptian anti-colonial cinema, screened as the opening film at Africa in Motion 2008.
Coming as it does nearly at the mid-point of Chahine’s career, it showcases his command of the cinematic form, while retaining the vitality and originality of a filmmaker who makes films as part of his ideological and social commitments. The film narrates the gradual politicisation of a small Nile-delta village in the 1930s, tracing the eventual revolt of the villagers against the corrupt colonial government. The political theme plays out against the backdrop of a love story and intergenerational conflict among the villagers.
The film is populated by memorable archetypes of the anti-colonial genre, and to some extent follows the template of socially committed filmmaking by depicting a poor community as it begins to awaken politically. el-Ard ends on a distinctly ambivalent note – celebrating the struggle, but uncertain of where this endeavour has led to – through a searing final shot that will be imprinted on the memory of any viewer of the film.
In el-Ard we discern the crucial social commitments that were to guide Chahine through so much of his work. It would be too facile to say, however, that Chahine’s work is easily reduced to terms such as “anti-colonial” or “Arab nationalist” even if these stances are valid terms to describe dimensions of some of his works.
Even in this film we may also follow Chahine’s fearless self-critique of Egyptian society’s deep class divisions, as well as his disillusionment with the aftermath of the 1952 revolution. Chahine was typical of the bravest members of the engaged secular Left of the Arab world in his ability to turn the mirror of criticism upon his own society, even while continuing to point to the unjust global systems which he believed were often to blame for the fundamental problems in Egypt and the Arab world. Schooled in filmmaking in the US, Chahine always mixed his praise of the openness and generosity he experienced on the part of Americans with trenchant criticism of what he viewed as the US’s profoundly negative role in the Arab world.
With the passing of Chahine this last July at the age of 82, the Arab world in general, and Egypt in particular, have lost one of the preeminent cultural voices of the secular Left. Chahine inspired numerous younger filmmakers and several of his protégés now occupy positions of note within a recently rejuvenated Egyptian cinema industry.
Chahine’s own legacy is assured, and with him we may say that Arab filmmakers found a confidence and clarity which has laid the groundwork for the current generation of filmmakers who have placed Arab cinemas squarely into a global spotlight.