``

Film Series / Events

Search All Film Series (1999-present)
Browse All Film Series

January 16 - 19

Youssef Chahine, the Cosmopolite of Egyptian Cinema

The recent death of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine (1926-2008) brought to a close an extraordinary and often controversial career extending over six decades and including thirty-seven feature films. Born in Alexandria, Chahine’s life and work exemplify the qualities most associated with the historic port city, including its reputation as a crossroads of the world and repository of culture from different civilizations. The cosmopolitanism that helped Chahine achieve international fame is also reflected in the tone and structure of his films, which vary from polished variations of typical Egyptian genre films to politically engaged and formally adventurous art cinema, in line with the various film movements and “new waves” around the world. Chahine’s films are also grounded by their “Cairo side,” in touch with the city that is the site of the Egyptian film industry, an industry that dominated Arab film with its populist blend of music and melodrama. While addressing the complexities of Egyptian social and political life, Chahine’s films retain the appeal and energy of mainstream genre cinema. Their combination of popular culture and artistic sophistication give them a certain ambiguity, as well as a rare exuberance and eclecticism.

Chahine’s fervent iconoclasm earned him enmity from many sides: from government officials worried that he presented the region in a bad light, from fundamentalists railing against the sexual sophistication of his films and their constant attention to male and female beauty, and from ideologues of all stripes dissatisfied by the director’s inclusionary insistence on the value of the different and the diverse. Chahine’s brilliance at blending convention and innovation in his portraits of Egyptian life may unsettle those with fixed ideas about the Arab world—or about the distinction between popular and art film—but they continue to fascinate and delight anyone with an open mind and a true love of cinema.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Friday January 16 at 7pm

Alexandria, Why? (Iskanderija… Lih?)

Directed by Youssef Chahine.
With Naglaa Fathi, Farid Shawki, Ezzat el-Alaili
Egypt 1978, 35mm, color, 130 min. Arabic with English subtitles

Alexandria, Why? marked a radical, newly introspective turn in Chahine’s active career, a sharp departure from his Fifties musicals and melodramas and his later epics and political films. The first of Chahine's four film semi-autobiography, entitled “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Alexandria, Why? focuses on a precocious adolescent whose dreams and colorful attempts to become an actor unfold against the vivid backdrop of Alexandria during World War II. A rich ensemble cast inspires Chahine's young thespian hero with a wealth of dramatic subplots—at turns hilarious and touching—about wartime life. The autobiographical nature and nostalgic flavor of Alexandria, Why? make it one of Chahine’s most accessible works, a charming and entertaining film that also delivers a potently subversive and impassioned anti-war message.

An Egyptian Story

Directed by Youssef Chahine.
With Oussama Nadir, Mohsen Mohieddin, Nour el-Cherif
Egypt 1982, video, color, 120 min. Arabic with English subtitles

The sequel to the autobiographically inspired Alexandria, Why?, An Egyptian Story covers the beginning of Chahine’s career up to his open-heart surgery in 1973. Chahine plays his alter-ego Yehia, who gains international fame in Europe only to discover that, as in Egypt, film is as much commerce as art. The section of the film dealing with Chahine’s heart attack and surgery contains two remarkable sequences. In one, Yehia travels to London for the surgery and becomes infatuated with a (male) British cab driver. The other brings the film to a phantasmagoric climax as Yehia, on the operating table, imagines himself forced to justify his life and work before a tribunal in an eccentric sequence inspired by Chaplin, 8-1/2 and All That Jazz.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Saturday January 17 at 7pm

Cairo Station (Bab-al-Hadid)

Directed by Youssef Chahine.
With Hind Rustum, Farid Shawki, Youssef Chahine
Egypt 1958, 35mm, b/w, 76 min. Arabic with English subtitles

Chahine himself stars in this melodrama of poverty and sexual frustration that shocked Arab audiences in the 1950s. The filmmaker is remarkably effective as a crippled newsvendor who lives alone in a squalid, pinup-lined shack and whose obsession with a beautiful young lemonade stand vendor leads inevitably towards violence. One of the decisive turning points in Chahine’s long career, Cairo Station marked a new visual daring and embrace of ambitious and controversial subject matter, an attempt to rejuvenate formula-driven mainstream Egyptian cinema by judiciously adding formal and thematic elements from both neorealism and German expressionism.

Cairo Seen By Youssef Chahine (al-Qahira menauwwara bi ahlaha)

Directed by Youssef Chahine.
Egypt 1991, 35mm, color, 22 min. Arabic with English subtitles

Chahine mixes documentary and fiction to create a portrait of Egypt’s bustling capital and a major center of the Arab world. The view of Cairo that emerges is a chaotic jumble of poverty, overcrowding, opulence and surging religious intolerance that results in a kaleidoscopic image recalling silent-era “city symphonies” and Fellini’s Roma.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Saturday January 17 at 9:15pm

The Sparrow (Al-Asfour)

Directed by Youssef Chahine.
With Seifeddin, Salah Kabil, Mohsena Tawfiq
Egypt 1972, 35mm, color, 105 min. Arabic with English subtitles

A vivid portrait of a nation in chaos, The Sparrow is set against the background of Egypt’s shocking defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel, a traumatic event that transformed Egyptians' confidence in Nasser into ambivalence towards a leader suddenly revealed to be deeply fallible. Eschewing traditional narrative in favor of an episodic ensemble piece focused on the hunt for a politically connected crime kingpin, The Sparrow'sheady combination of realist and expressionist elements is meant to disorient the viewer and evoke Chahine’s vision of a country suddenly gone far astray.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday January 18 at 3pm

Destiny (al-Masir)

Directed by Youssef Chahine.
With Nour-el-Cheif, Laila Eloui, Mahmoud Hemeida
Egypt 1998, 35mm, color, 137 min. Arabic with English subtitles
Print from Leisure Time Features

Alarmed by the rise of religious fundamentalism in Egypt in the 1990s, Chahine created an historical epic centered on the philosopher Ibn Rashd (known in the West as Averroës) and set in medieval Córdoba, Spain where—under Arab rule—a secular and multicultural society flourished. To make his point, Chahine concocts the story of a young Arab man lured away from his “decadent” lifestyle and indoctrinated into a fundamentalist sect. Though the film operates as a sincere and moving plea for tolerance and a timely warning against violent religious extremism, Chahine also provides plenty of spectacle, including a steamy romance and lots of song and dance.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday January 18 at 7pm

The Land (al-Ard)

Directed by Youssef Chahine.
With Mahmoud al-Melligi, Najwa Ibrahim, Izzat al-Alayli
Egypt 1968, 35mm, color, 130 min. Arabic with English subtitles

One of Chahine's most enduring classics, The Land details the struggle of a group of peasant farmers in the 1930s to protect their fields and their livelihood against a corrupt pasha interested only in self-aggrandizement. Adapted by Chahine from a novel published shortly after the abolition of the monarchy by Egypt's 1952 revolution, The Land offers a full-blooded narrative of political struggle and sweeping nationalist emotions and is a rallying cry for an Arab world demoralized by Israeli expansion in the late 1960s.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Sunday January 18 at 9:30pm

Alexandria Again and Forever (Iskanderija, Kaman Oue Kaman)

Directed by Youssef Chahine.
With Yousra, Youssef Chahine, Hussein Fahmy
Egypt/France 1989, 35mm, color, 105 min. Arabic with English subtitles

The third installment in Chahine’s quartet of autobiographical films finds the director’s work stalled by a strike. During the interruption in filming, Chahine reminisces about a past relationship with one of his actors while finding himself gradually drawn to an actress. The intimacy between director and performer is depicted symbolically, in a tender dance number clearly in homage to the Hollywood musical and set on a snow-covered street in Berlin during a film festival. A masterful amalgam of realism and fantasy, Alexandria Again and Forever is Chahine’s paean to the power of imagination and the artist.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Monday January 19 at 7pm

Chaos (Heya Fawda )

Directed by Youssef Chahine.
With Khaled Saleh, Mena Shalaby, Hala Sedky
Egypt/France 2007, 35mm, color, 122 min. Arabic with English subtitles
Print from Connaissance du Cinema

In his last film, completed with the help of longtime collaborator Khaled Youssef, Chahine concocts a tasty melodrama, with plenty of political bite, out of a tale about a crusading public prosecutor taking on a corrupt and sadistic police chief in contemporary Cairo. Set in the cosmopolitan neighborhood of Choubra, known for the diversity of its residents, Chaos reveals the area to be a powder keg thanks to social and economic conditions that deteriorate while the elite look the other way. Chahine being Chahine, the drama and political commentary is overlaid with a love triangle that ups the ante for all concerned.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Monday January 19 at 9:15pm

Return of the Prodigal Son (Awdat al-Ibn al Dal)

Directed by Youssef Chahine.
With Mahmoud el-Milligi, Sid Ali Khouiret, Huda Sultan
Egypt/Algeria 1976, video, color, 120 min. Arabic with English subtitles

Arab melodrama draws on familial strife just as much as the melodramas of classic Hollywood and popular Indian cinema, and here Chahine, like Minnelli and Visconti, expands the family melodrama to examine a disillusioned nation. The story concerns a benevolent farmer, his troubled son and his grandson, who is beginning to chafe under his father’s restrictions; the situation is given an explosive charge by the return from prison of the patriarch’s beloved younger son. The film’s screenplay is co-written by songwriter Salah Jahin, who also wrote the score. (Yes, Prodigal Son is also a musical.) Jahin’s earlier music had praised Nasser, and his work on this film was meant to expiate the guilt he felt for helping to inflate Egypt’s expectation of its leader.

Browse Other Series from this Season
Return to Top

Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700