Youssef Chahine Tribute

AlexandriaDVDFrom Feb ’09 Spotlight: Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center is currently participating in a nationwide retrospective of films by famed Egyptian director Youssef Chahine who died last year at the age of 82. Of the six films in the Siskel series, I’ve already seen three: The Land (1969), The Sparrow (1972), and Alexandria…Why? (1978).

Alexandria…Why? is set in 1942. The entire city of Alexandria is watching huge armies fight over El Alamein (barely 65 miles away), and as Erwin Rommel’s troops come ever closer, sympathies become increasingly polarized. Some are loyalty to the British, while others support the Germans (if only to drive the British away). One of the primary characters is a Jewish woman in love with a radical nationalist. Terrified of the Nazis, her father orders her to pack and leave with him for South Africa. The cross-cultural clash is fascinating, and Chahine is equally sympathetic to every point of view.

There are no Jewish characters in either The Sparrow or The Land but everything I saw in these two films cast light on complaints about governmental corruption and ineptitude. Made decades ago, Chahine’s films still resonate and their current relevance is beyond dispute. It takes a great artist like Chahine to reveal deep cultural truths beneath our nightly news reports.

The series concludes on Feb.2, so there’s still time to catch one of these fine films if you act fast. For more information, visit

Introduction from the GSFC Website:

Youssef Chahine: Grand Master of Arab Cinema

“Youssef Chahine was the leading voice of the Arab cinema for over half a century…his abiding worth, inside Egypt and out, has been in his outspoken expression of the conscience of his country. He took on imperialism and fundamentalism alike, celebrated the liberty of body and soul, and offered himself warts and all as an emblem of his nation. Egypt’s modern history is etched in his life’s work.”–Nick Bradshaw, Guardian

From January 2 though February 3, the GeneSiskelFilmCenter presents a retrospective selection of the films of Youssef Chahine, who died this past July at the age of 82. Through more than fifty years of active work, Chahine reigned as Egypt’s premier director, producing 44 films, winning the world’s most prestigious festival prizes, and discovering stars including Omar Sharif. Thanks to the efforts of Typecast Releasing, we present a newly restored 35mm print of Chahine’s masterful and greatly acclaimed CAIRO STATION as the centerpiece of the series.

Chahine was born in 1926 of Christian parents in Alexandria, a sophisticated and multi-cultural city that was to figure prominently in many of his films. From an early age, he was a fan of Hollywood movies, and, as a young man, spent two years studying acting at Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles. As a film director, he was both a social realist and a canny entertainer, fearlessly blending genres to forge his own unique style of story-telling. He even incorporated newsreels, musical numbers, and home movies into his work, notably ALEXANDRIA, WHY?

Themes of openness and tolerance are threaded through Chahine’s work. A pioneer, he often faced opposition, and films including THE SPARROW had been banned in Egypt upon first release. Audiences responded to the overt sensuality of CAIRO STATION by rioting and ripping the seats out of cinemas. Chahine’s frank treatment of sexual relationships and homosexuality was a first in the Arab world, as was the unabashed autobiographical nature of some of his work. A true original, Youssef Chahine told his own story even as he told Egypt’s story in the age of cinema.

Special thanks to Alex Williams of Arab Film Distribution.

–Barbara Scharres (GSFC Director of Programming)


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