Youssef Chahine is an Egyptian filmmaker (born Jan. 25, 1926, Alexandria, Egypt died July 27, 2008, Cairo, Egypt), created more than 40 films, including musicals, dramas, comedies, and historical epics. Lot of his work, however, was reproachful of the Egyptian government and censured social mistreatment and religious enthusiasm; his readiness to handle risky subjects caused some of his films to be censored. Chahine did his autobiographical Alexandria trilogy: Alexandria?·?Why? An Egyptian Story and Alexandria Again and Forever.
Alexandria why that portraits the early life of the director Youssef and his home city Alexandria.
A young Arab student, Yehia falls in love with a British soldier. Yehia loves William Shakespeare and dreams of studying filmmaking. The division between his world and the West, in addition to his sexual arousing, drives him to genuinely reexamine his personality and devotions. In addition to “An Egyptian story” film that talks about, an Egyptian filmmaker, in the middle of his own heart surgery, recalls his life: his old self, as a kid, is blamed for attempting murder of his new self.
Through the metaphoric trial, we are drawn into his life in connection with the Egyptian revolution, his constant requirement for success, and the impact the American Dream has on him. In the third and final film of Youssef Chahine’s Alexandria trilogy, the director plays Yehia, a filmmaker who joins in a hunger strike organized by technicians protesting the inequities of the Egyptian film industry. While battling for better conditions for his fellow workers, Yehia also finds himself obsessed with both Amir and Nadia.
The film walks a fine line between narrative and surrealism as Yehia tries to resolve his conflicting attitudes about love, sex, art, and politics.
I will discuss Chahine’s life and style through historical, auteur, formalism and ideology approaches by referring to those 3 movies.
Historically, first, I have to mention that Chahine has been in Egypt during World War II, and he has made his three movies during the struggle between German and British military forces in Egypt. So his 3 movies came as a reaction to what happened in Egypt. In addition to his immigration to Hollywood in purpose of learning directing and the refuse of his parents to let him travel outside Egypt motivated him to follow his dream. For example, Alexandria·why? is set during World War II when Alexandria was still the province of British colonial authorities. According to an essay in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Chahine’s “film is peopled with English soldiers, Egyptian patriots, aristocrats, and struggling bourgeoisie, the enthusiastic young and their disillusioned or corrupt elders·”. Also, this movie showed the refuse of Yehia’s parents to let him travel and study filmmaking, and how Yehia finally convinces his parents to travel.
Auteur Chahine is a key figure in Third World cinema. Unlike some of the other major filmmakers who also emerged in the 1950s, he has not turned his back on commercial cinema. He has dependably demonstrated a desire to reach a wide audience. Chahine’s strength as a filmmaker lies indeed in his ability to join standards production techniques with a very individual style and approach. Though intensely patriotic, he has shown a preparation to scrutinize government policies with which he doesn’t concur, such as those of the late President Sadat. It is unexpected in this way that the appearance of Alexandria . . . Why? should have coincided with the Camp David agreements between Egypt and Israel. Thus, Chahine’s very personal statement of his belief in a tolerant society came to be widely criticized in the Arab world as a crafty political statement and a justification of Sadat’s policies. Moreover, Chahine’s oeuvre became a cinema of ensemble pieces, dense with subplots. This plays out even in his most personal work, Alexandria, Why? Chahine’s young avatar is at the center of the action, but the film accumulates a good half-dozen stories that bid for our attention, including the romance between an Arab boy and a Jewish girl and the doomed passion of a gay Egyptian patriot for the English soldier he was going to execute. Alexandria . . . Why? presents a vividly drawn picture of this vanished world: Alexandria in 1942, awaiting the arrival of Rommel’s troops, who, it is hoped, will finally drive out the British. Chahine mocks the excesses of the nationalists and tells love stories that cross the neatly drawn barriers separating Muslim and Jew, Egyptian aristocrat and English Tommy. The revelation of Chahine’s own background and a few of his personal obsessions (as with the crucified Christ) seems to have released fresh creative powers in the director. Drama, emotional intensity and humanism are the leitmotivs of Chahine’s films. As a man, Chahine has advocated the reason for democratic and progressive intellectuals against the currents of fundamentalism and conservatism. Chahine’s truthfulness is touching as well as uncomfortable, forcing viewers to see the world from another perspective, sensibility, and dialect. Chahine’s endeavor may not be unique among the entire array of Third World filmmakers who act and react against the West. However, given his own involvement and interests in the Western arts and influences, which not too many non-Western filmmakers could in fact claim to be devoid of, it is his imagination in forms and consistency (Roy Armes, updated by Guo-Juin Hong).
People said that Chahine’s films are so complicated because he has a problem in sending messages in a simple way. Youssef tends to make films that did not supplement the level of artistic and political consciousness and expectations of the audiences. He believes that the director has to feel with the actor. He also said that the actors understood what he wants to see on the screen just through eye contacts. He said: a smart director should tell the actor about the situation of the scene directly before the camera roll. Chahine isn’t convinced by the first takes, even if they go well. He asks actors to repeat several times. Chahine first took existed scripts, but he faces problems because he likes to edit those scripts and the scriptwriters refuse that. So he decides to write his own scenarios. In addition to his conflux with scriptwriters, as Youssef Edris who wrote “an Egyptian story” with Chahine. They wrote the script several times because Chahine wants to write about his own experience from his own perspective: Youssef wanted to show his mother as a bad person because he doesn’t like her. In contrast, Edris wanted to show the contrary image on Chahine’s mother. Also, Chahine prevented his mom from seeing the film “Alexandria why” because “Mohsena Toufic” the actress that plays the role of Chahine’s mom doesn’t fit the real personality of his mom. Mohsena Toufic changed her role but in a smart way that Chahine doesn’t stop her because he recognizes her hobby in acting and knows that this is going to be amazing on the screen. So when an actor does something special, Chahine let him do it even if he has complete control over all the elements from the beginning to the end. Chahine suggests that the director shouldn’t always impose his perception, but follow the actor’s feeling. Also, he thinks that there isn’t a “perfect director” but there is a “perfect film” done by a director. He believes that a director should do what he loves even if the audiences don’t do. In his trilogy, Chahine took a bad experience and transform it into a film by trying to bring the best from it.
Ideologically, Chahine focuses on reaffirming the Arab identity of Egyptian Jews through the sympathetic portrayals of the friendship between David and Yehia, the love story between Sara and Ibrahim, and equally as important, through his depiction of Sorel. Moreover, he focused on themes of cultural conflict, the selection of morally skewed versions of free enterprise, social hybridity, and fear-based oppression as a cautious social system in the time of globalization. By and by, Chahine’s seizing of a sociopolitical reality influencing each viewpoint Egyptian and Arab culture was one of a kind yet steady with his propensity specifically stress required for a pioneering change that remaining parts insightful of national cultural specificities. Chahine also tackles in his films the homosexual relations and all the problems caused by War (Alexandria why).
For the form, Chahine exhibited a mastery of the art of mise-en-scene as well as his elaborate strategies for camera positioning and movements. For the elements of mise-en-scene, Chahine focuses on two types of shot: medium and close-up to extreme close up shots. First, he used medium shots to recognize the character followed by a close up or extreme close up to emphasize the sympathetic expression on characters’ face: anxious, sadness, love· and the viewer acknowledges the presence of the camera. For the angles, Chahine focused on the eye level angle, but he also included a high angle to show traffics and actions from the top. For example, when he showed scenes from the war, it’s from a high angle. In addition to the type of shots and angles, Chahine combined the high and low key. When the scene is about war, problems, couple separation, Chahine used low key light, in contrast when the scene is about love, solutions· he used high key light. The dominant colors in Chahine’s films are red, white and black. The red color is used to show love, power, anger, and danger. While white color is used to show peace and humanity. For sure, black colors are used to show power, sexuality, and sadness.
The mise-en-scene includes the d?cor that explicitly showed the harsh living conditions, and introduced the viewer to the setting and main characters present throughout the film and where and when the story takes place, while implicitly outlining some of the personality traits of main characters. Chahine used depth in his scene by including the foreground, midground, and background. The director used camera movements in all his films: zoom in, zoom out, pan left, right, dolly in and out. For the editing, Chahine’s technique of intercutting the action with scenes from archive footage from the War is as successful as it is audacious. Also, the direction and the montage transpose you from one episode to the other without any logical progression and continuity. For example, when the young Yehia struggles to go to America to study, that you feel attached to the events and find yourself witnessing a powerful artistic moment. In fact, the previously mentioned underlying themes are mostly reflected through the acting, location, sound, and mise-en-scene of the sequence.
In conclusion, Chahine’s trilogy movies reflected his life experience in addition to his own style in storytelling. Chahine once said: If you love other people, every story is interesting. Everybody has a magnificent story somewhere inside them. The important thing is to know how to listen to the story and then to tell it.