Youssef Chahine made the first great African film. He deals fearlessly with Arab themes. The Anglo-Saxon film world knows nothing about him. Why not?by Mark Cousins / January 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
I am in Egypt, interviewing the director Youssef Chahine for the documentary version of my book, The Story of Film. Now in his 80th year, Chahine is one of the few cinema pioneers still alive. His were the first great Arab and African films. Chatting to him in his office in hot and dusty Cairo in December, it’s difficult to believe that he’s something like the continent’s DW Griffith. Chahine is almost invisible in the Anglo-Saxon world. He had a retrospective at the NFT in London a few years ago, but he’s not talked about here. No filmmakers and only one critic mentioned his work in Sight and Sound’s 2002 poll of the best films ever made. His groundbreaking film Cairo Station (1958) is not available on DVD or VHS. His movies are never shown on British television.
Try the following thought experiment. You are a European film critic contemplating the movies of the 1950s. You think first of Rebel Without a Cause and the Marlon Brando films; then Vertigo and Rear Window; then Cinema-Scope films like The Robe and Ben-Hur. Moving beyond America, you jot down the early films of Fellini and Bergman, the austere work of Robert Bresson and, in Britain, the Free Cinema of Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz. Mindful of the mid-decade breakthrough of Asian cinema in the west, you include on your list Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali.
This is as far as most diligent critics would go, but it’s exactly the point at which things get interesting. Do you notice that there are no African films on your list? If not, if you have never even considered it, then you are, at least, guilty of a lack of curiosity.
Let’s assume, however, that Africa does cross your mind. What then? You perhaps assume either a) if there had been great African films of the 1950s you’d have heard of them, or b) there may have been nascent talents there but that they were hampered by primitive equipment. The first is naive about distribution—do we really think that the best is naturally made available to us? The second is more excusable, but equally untrue. There was a sophisticated film studio in Egypt from 1935.
Which leaves a third position: that although you’ve seen no great 1950s African films, you should use Karl Popper’s principle of demonstrating that your assumptions are right by trying to prove them wrong. Do so and you will discover the career of Chahine. He’s a Christian Alexandrian Arab who studied film in Pasadena, where he fell in love with the musicals of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly. He began making movies in the early 1950s and in his sixth discovered Omar Sharif. Cairo Station, his twelfth, was the first great movie made by an African. Set during one day in the Egyptian capital’s main transport hub, it anticipates Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in its depiction of the murderous consequences of sexual repression. Its main character, Kenawi, a crippled newspaper-seller in love with a voluptuous lemonade vendor, was played by Chahine himself in a performance, like Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates, which is remarkable in its detail and understatement. The film combines a Nasserian belief in Arab socialism, a Reichian view of sexuality and an Italian neorealist focus on the everyday. “I believe in no boundaries—sexual or social,” Chahine tells me, 47 years later, drawing on an Egyptian cigarette and tapping his toe as if “Dancing Cheek To Cheek” were on the radio.
Such idealism has often been tested. Chahine was spat on when Cairo Station was released, for daring to deal with such outré sexual themes. In his subsequent career, The Sparrow (1972) brilliantly confronted the Arab world with its defeat in the six day war and Nasser’s resignation. Destiny (1996) attacked Islamic fundamentalism by dramatising the life of the moderate medieval scholar Averroës. Chahine was pilloried. As a result of such outspokenness, and despite being famous in his own country, the director is no longer allowed to appear live on national television. He has criticised Mubarak too many times. His eyes glint as he says this. I’ve interviewed hundreds of film people but none—not Dennis Hopper or Roman Polanski—is more rebellious.
Chahine is underrated in the Anglo-Saxon world (though not France, where he won a lifetime achievement award at Cannes in 1997) because our film writers are incurious or worse. In the era of DVD, there is no excuse. And the blame lies not only with writers but programmers, film magazine editors and television and radio commissioners. To survey 1950s cinema without Chahine (never mind the great Indian directors like Guru Dutt and Mehboob, or South Americans Leopoldo Torre Nilsson and Glauber Rocha, or the Russian Sergei Gerasimov or the Chinese Xie Tian) is complacent and ignorant.
At a press conference for the Cairo international film festival in December, Morgan Freeman said that cinema can help with international communication and “combat the clash of civilisations.” If he’s even partially right, then the Anglo-Saxon world’s ongoing cinematic narcissism is a disgrace.