Chahine reaction

Author: Janet Smith

Published in Electronic Mail & Guardian, November 6, 1997

I put up this page because online-information on Youssef Chahine´s work is very rare, and the original site where I found it at Mail & Guardian ( was deleted.
If one of the copyright holders wants me not to publish the text, please contact me (use the feedback-link at the bottom of the page) and I´ll delete the interview immediately. Chris

Egyptian director Youssef Chahine recently won nine out of the 14 categories in the M-Net All-Africa Film Awards with his film Destiny. He spoke to JANET SMITH

A journalist could gush like a desert oil well after meeting Egyptian film director Youssef Chahine. He's charming enough to persuade a glass of wine to replace mineral water during an interview - and then he interrupts the ritual of lighting another cigarette to slice a few words like quince.

It doesn't take long before you wonder why we revere American movie junkies like Quentin Tarantino, who shoot up on their own spleen. Chahine says he doesn't understand the plots of Hollywood movies: too rigid in construction, yet too shallow to have a real ending. He wants desperately to hate someone in an American thriller - but who? Characters are as complex as serviettes in a take-out joint.

He tells a quick story about mom and dad and kids bundled on to a motorbike in Cairo. Mom's wearing a full veil but the wind is blowing up her skirt so you can see her arse. He laughs at the story of how Nour el Cherif, one of Africa's most sensational film stars, wanted to work with him so badly that he agreed not to accept any other roles for a year.

It's all about Destiny at the moment: the film that has generated Chahine's most recent triumphs, the one most likely to be seen as his masterpiece. Initially not accepted for the official competition at Cannes this year, then accepted because it could not be ignored, it ultimately won the most important prize of all - the unique Prix du Jour 50 Anniversaire, never to be awarded again. Chahine has also just scooped the M- Net All-Africa Film Awards, winning nine out of 14 categories, including best director and best film overall.

Chahine has made more than 30 films, spending up to two years on each. Most of the world may only be able to name two Egyptian celebrities - Harrods supremo Mohamed al-Fayed and his ill-fated son Dodi - but cognoscenti of North African film see Chahine not only as a great patriot but also as an artist who has captured his country's - and his region's -history with the flashing beauty of a freshly-drawn sword, a film- maker to rank with Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's 1988 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Born in 1926 in Alexandria, Chahine first attended the Cannes film festival in 1951. More than 46 years and five selections after he made his first film, he was the reason for the 15-minute standing ovation there this year. Some said the character of Averroes in Destiny, the high judge of 12th-century Andalusia, represents Chahine himself, addressing Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak on the issues of state and society. The film may be seen as a call to resistance, but, more simply, Chahine says there can be nothing worse than being too afraid to react. Like many Egyptian intellectuals, he walks the tightrope of religion and politics.

A Christian, he deals with such issues in his films - no matter the time in which they are set - in the way they present themselves in contemporary Egyptian society. For Chahine, the defiance of extremists (he won't tolerate the term "fundamentalists") is an issue, and, like Averroes in Destiny, he confronts those who would use religion to gain secular power in much of his work.

Along with a plot about the caliph's son and a gypsy clan, Destiny shows Averroes - a Muslim philosopher whose work on Aristotle gave much to the Christian West - as a political player in medieval Moor-ruled Spain. At the peak of Moorish power in Europe, he taught that the Qur'an was a guide to tolerance and love and that faith and reason were not incompatible. He was ferociously opposed by extremist factions at the court, who sought (like anti-intellectual extremists in Egypt today) to destroy his work.

Chahine is no stranger to the delicate balance of making art that speaks about such issues when there are many in his country who are not exactly open to subtleties of meaning.

In the past, he laughs, when making his films, it sometimes "became necessary for my assistant to find passages from the Qur'an which would justify my doing something in a film without having the censors stop it altogether".

I put up this page because online-information on Youssef Chahine´s work is very rare, and the original site where I found it at Mail & Guardian ( was deleted.
If one of the copyright holders wants me not to publish the text, please contact me and I´ll delete the interview immediately. Chris