Youssef Chahine, 82; Arab Movie Industry's Leading Filmmaker

Youssef Chahine's films explored issues and politics in Arab society.
Youssef Chahine's films explored issues and politics in Arab society. (By Mohamed Al Sehety -- Associated Press)
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By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Youssef Chahine, 82, the visionary dean of the Arab movie industry whose films captivated and provoked audiences for over half a century by delving into the social, the political and the sexual, died July 27 at Maadi Military Hospital in Cairo. He had a cerebral hemorrhage following a series of strokes and heart complications.

Mr. Chahine received many professional accolades, including the Cannes Film Festival lifetime achievement award, but his prime appeal among Arab audiences was the human and sensitive prism he held up in his movies to reflect the psyche and suppressed desires of Egypt's Everyman.

He unveiled injustices made more dramatic by a corrupt bourgeoisie, an unforgiving system mired in bureaucracy and archaic traditions. He was a master at exposing the decadence of Egypt's upper classes who reveled in lavish social gatherings in bow ties and plunging neck lines, sipping champagne and dancing to live orchestras -- as impoverished Egyptians lived in the shadows, subsisting on stewed fava beans and faith.

Working across many genres, he took his roving eye and camera into the hazy underworld of smoke-filled hashish dens and rickety tea houses in Cairo's urban warrens of poverty and despair. He collaborated with the late Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's Nobel laureate, on two films.

Mr. Chahine's crusades for democracy and an open society often proved costly, as he sparred with angry censors and culture ministers.

Some of his films were banned, but he was undeterred from his mission as a committed cineaste, "a path he pursued as a contrarian, a rebel, an angry commentator, uncowed by censorship nor limited by boundaries," wrote Arab film critic Ibrahim Al Aris in the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat yesterday.

Mr. Chahine's social consciousness and modernistic outlook first surfaced in his 1954 movie "Siraa Fil-Wadi" ("Struggle in the Valley"), which he started shooting during the reign of King Farouk to depict a peasant uprising against a tyrannical feudal landlord. In that film, he also discovered and launched the screen career of actor Omar Sharif.

Like Sharif, Mr. Chahine was a Christian Egyptian with Lebanese family roots. Mr. Chahine was born Jan. 25, 1926, in Alexandria, Egypt, to a Lebanese lawyer and a Greek mother.

He attended private schools and studied engineering in college to please his father but defected to Hollywood after a year. He studied film from 1946 to 1948 at the Pasadena Playhouse outside Los Angeles and was mentored by Italian filmmakers influential in early Egyptian cinema.

His second film, 1951's "Ibn el Nil" ("The Son of the Nile"), was nominated for the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Mr. Chahine sealed his fame as a serious cineaste with "Bab el Hadid," ("Cairo Station") in 1958, in which he played a disabled newspaper vendor at a train station whose repressed lust for a soft-drink seller drives him to commit murder.

His eclectic body of work and wide range of genre stemmed from his belief that he could touch people anywhere, anytime. The cosmopolitan Mediterranean port city he came of age in was open to the world and a harmonious distillation of its humanity, a collage of Muslims, Christians and Jews, Egyptians, Lebanese, Italians and Greeks thriving side by side.

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