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…