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Egypt's cinematic master remembered

Leading Egyptian film-maker Youssef Chahine
Youssef Chahine was one of Arab cinema's most respected figures

As tributes are paid to Youssef Chahine, whose funeral was held on Monday, the BBC's Bob Trevelyan recalls his own brief meeting with the great Egyptian film director.

In the weeks leading up to the 1991 Gulf war, Alexandria was sometimes a tense place to be.

There was an attack on British business interests in the city and at the university, where I was studying Arabic, students staged angry demonstrations, denouncing the coming attacks on Iraq.

A few miles further down the coast, Youssef Chahine was at work on his latest film, Alexandria Again and Forever, the third part of a semi-autobiographical quartet inspired by the city of his birth.

An Egyptian friend of mine who knew some of the crew offered me the chance to be an extra and, out of curiosity, I accepted.

Working on a shoestring

I had heard of Chahine, but did not know his work and had no idea what to expect.

CHAHINE FACTS
Born 25 January 1926, died 27 July 2008
Father was Christian Lebanese, his mother Greek
First film made in 1950
He made more than 40 films
Won lifetime achievement award at Cannes in 1997

Although the pre-eminent Arab film-maker of his generation, Chahine still operated on what seemed like a shoestring budget.

The filming was taking place at a restaurant, but the cast and crew ate at a trestle table set up on the beach.

The food was basic - large chunks of bread and cheap fish, washed down with cola.

My own fleeting appearance in the film was to play a drunk at a bar, swilling what was supposed to be whisky but what was, in another economy, actually flat cola diluted with water.

Biography and fantasy

Chahine himself was friendly and welcoming, not too busy or too grand to talk to the most peripheral members of his cast, while also having to manage the egos of some of Egypt's biggest box-office stars.

He seemed efficient and in control, but also down-to-earth and approachable.

It was difficult to believe that he was really the biggest star there.

The film mixed autobiography with some of Chahine's favourite themes, such as injustice and the breaking of sexual taboos.

In a change from earlier works of social realism, there were also fantasy and musical interludes that led some to draw comparisons with the great Italian film director, Federico Fellini.

I still have not seen the completed film myself, but I have the memory of a day on set with Egypt's greatest film-maker when worries about war were temporarily pushed to one side.


Read a selection of your comments:

I love all his work especially El Bab El Hadid. Egypt has lost a director without rival.
Sherifa Aly , Egypt

Chahine was a bright star in a dark sky with very few stars that shines as bright as him! Return of the prodigal son, Alexandria Why? and The Sixth day are of the best movies I have ever seen, they deeply show complexity of human hopelessness and desperation, on the other hand, they show amazing positiveness and bright outlook for life.
Bill Al, Mountain View, CA, USA

Egypt lost the last of her great artists. Thank you Chahine and goodbye!
George Abadir, Vancouver, Canada

At a time when Egyptians receive one blow after another, whether it be soaring food prices or escalating gasoline prices, the hands of fate have chosen to deliver yet another: a cinematic giant, Youssef Shahin has passed. As an intellectually puny teenager I struggled to understand his highly textured works such as Awdat al ibn al dal (Return of the lost son) which dealt with the hills and valleys that compose the darkness of the human soul. My heart was stroked by Il Ard (the Earth) as it deconstructed evils of colonialism and its bargain with the other devil, the ruling aristocracy of the time.
Amr Khalifa, New York & Cairo

When I was a teenager, I watched some of Chahine's films in the 1980s, and to be honest, I couldn't understand them. They were way beyond what my young mind could grasp. After finishing school, I went on to study literature at Cairo University, and in a couple of years I slowly began to understand the symbolism, sophisticated filming techniques, unique themes, and the unusual plots of his films. I particularly like Al-Ard (the Land), Iskenderiah Leh (Alexandria, Why?), Al-Yom Al-Sades (Sixth Day) and Al-Mohager (Emigrant). Farewell Mr Chahine. May you rest in peace.
Sammi Pierre El-Sayegh, Port Said, Egypt

Creativity has lost a fine practitioner. Chahine has defied and challenged Arab cinema and dominated it for the last 55 years. Films like the Land has defined an entire people's relationship with lands and farms. His love affair with his beloved Alexandria has served us well. Arab and international cinema is less interesting with his passing. Thanks Youssef for sharing with us the beautiful, often disturbing, expressions of your understanding of the world and our condition. We are all better because of your work. Salam master.
Jehad Aliweiwi, Toronto, Canada

What a great loss for Egypt and the cinema industry. Mentioned Egypt first, since he is one of the last freedom fighters in this corrupt country. He died the same day justice died and was buried in Egypt, with the innocent verdict for the case of the drowning ferry in the Red Sea 2006. No one to blame for the death of over 1100 victims. He would have gone out and protested against injustice as he did for 60 years. My favourite movie is Cairo Railway station, 1954 and the Sparrow. Goodbye Chahine, goodbye freedom of speech.
Suzan Khater, Cairo, Egypt

I saw Chahine's Destiny several years ago and heard him answer questions about it at MOMA in NY. It's the best depiction of what a philosopher can do to improve human life I've seen in cinema--a great film!
Dr. Michael D. Rohr, Montclair, NJ USA

Emigrant was amazing and one the best movies I have seen so far - and it is so unfortunate that you cannot watch it again, or it is not available as DVD, while we get all the useless action rubbish with lousy stars, which does not deserve to be called movies at all.
Peter Bergdoll, Helmstadt , Germany




SEE ALSO
Egyptian film legend Chahine dies
27 Jul 08 |  Entertainment
Egyptian cinema legend 'in coma'
16 Jun 08 |  Middle East

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