Page last updated at 08:36 GMT, Thursday, 14 August 2008 09:36 UK

Hollow celebration of Egypt's maestro

By Lina Wardani
BBC News, Cairo

When Egypt's leading film director, Youssef Chahine, died last month, his work was celebrated in government-owned newspapers and media as it never was during his lifetime.

Youssef Chahine
The director was thought of as a government opponent during his career
Egyptian TV has shown endless extracts from his films and special programmes about his life and work.

Film director Hala Galal says it is not an unusual phenomenon for the Egyptian government.

"It happened with Naguib Mahfouz too, Egyptian Nobel prize winner. He was celebrated after his death much more than during his lifetime," she says.

Chahine was thought of as an opponent of the Egyptian regime since its defeat in the 1967 war and the student demonstrations which began in Cairo in February 1968.

He won many international awards, the most famous is the 50th annual lifetime achievement award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997.

But his first Egyptian award only came in 2007 when he was 81.

"They made sure he would accept it though because if he refused, it will look very embarrassing to the regime," says film critic Tarik Shinawi.

"In the last two years he was sick and old, also surrounded by people who didn't want any trouble with the government - that's why he accepted the award."

Unintentional opposition

Nevertheless, formal condolences for Chahine's death came from the Elysee Palace in France before it came from Egypt's own president.

Tarik Shinawi believes the Egyptian state was forced to commemorate his death because the world was doing so.

Youssef Chahine receiving award at Cannes
Chahine was awarded France's highest official and artist honours
But Egyptian writer and artist Adel al-Siwi points out that Chahine shouldn't be thought of only in terms of his opposition to the government.

"It wasn't his intention always to be against the regime. During the Nasserist period he produced films that supported the regime like Fajr Youm Gedid (The Dawn of a New Day)," Siwi says.

"He wasn't an opponent, he just interacted with society and history."

Egyptian filmmaker Daoud Abdul Sayed is not surprised by the government celebration of Chahine, the "opposition" director.

"The celebration will not add to Chahine's name, it will only add to the state's name, it will make it more trusted," says Daoud Abdul Sayed.

High acclaim

Whether he was seen as an inveterate opponent of the establishment, he was known to speak his mind no matter what the consequences.

His films were always shocking and ahead of the rest of the industry, for example Al-Asfur (The Bird) which attributed the Arab defeat in the 1967 war to corruption among the political classes at the time.

He also made three highly acclaimed films in the late 1990s - Al-Muhajer (The Emigrant), Al-Masir (Destiny) and Al-Akhar (The Other), which focused on tolerance and the distinction between Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.

Chahine was also interested in his own past, as seen in his first film Baba Amin, and his famous Alexandria trilogy.

"He was always optimistic. His films are a celebration of life. He is always for love, the young, beauty and the future," says Hala Galal.

"He never laments the past in his films, he praises the present and promises a better future. These are the films I want to see and hope to make," adds Hala Galal.

Chahine's private memorial was perhaps the most fitting tribute which he received.

He had asked for a gathering of friends at a film studio near the High Institute of Cinema, where he taught.

Huge numbers of artists met in a large studio where sets of his films were on display and Muhammad Mounir's song Raise your Voice, Songs are still Possible was played.


SEE ALSO
Egyptian cinema legend 'in coma'
16 Jun 08 |  Middle East

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