Remembering Chahine: The Godfather of Egyptian Cinema

They called him the Brilliant, the Madman, the International, the Prof and the Dictator, but they all agreed that he is a pioneer in his field, that his contribution to Egyptian cinematography is undeniable. The esteemed director left our world nine years ago today, leaving behind a magnificent collection of unorthodox movies and documentaries.

Chahine was born on January 25, 1926 in British-occupied Alexandria to a Lebanese father and a Greek mother. He studied at the French Missionary School, followed by the prestigious Victoria College School. He craved a theatrical career and dreamt of being an actor, but his father had another wish. So he started studying engineering at Alexandria University. However, a leopard can’t change his spots; Chahine managed to persuade his parents to travel to California and study acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. His enthusiasm drove him to cram a three-year acting course into two years. Upon his return, he decided to work with two Italian filmmakers as an apprentice, where he started his career as a director.

The cosmopolitan environment where Chahine was brought up helped in shaping his tolerant and conscious character. His respect to all religions and ideologies was obvious in his movies. According to Abbas Saber, the accessory designer who accompanied Chahine in most of his great movies, every Eid Adha he used to slay two bullocks to feed poor people, regardless of his Christian faith that never obliged him to do so.

Being a troublemaker was one of his traits; his projects reflected his political concerns and religious views fearlessly. The daredevil never cared about the threats he received from fundamentalists or the restrictions of the authorities. Once he was asked in a TV interview if he used symbolism to elaborate his opinions and views, but he sharply said, “No, not me; I directly say what I want.” His belief of the role of women in society emerged in several movies like Gamila Buhraid and his unique “Baheya.” “Baheya” is a fictional character that you’ll find in many of Chahine’s movies; she is a strong, persistent, patient woman who you can rely on that will never let you down -symbolizing Egypt.

The long journey started with 1950’s Baba Amin, followed by the first Egyptian movie to use exterior locations for shooting in Ibn El Nil, 1951. In 1954, he introduced to us to the Lawrence of Arabia, Omar El Sharif, for the first time in Sera’ Fi El Wadi. Bab El Hadid, 1958, was one of the highlights of Chahine’s journey; where he represented the marginalized sector of daily paid workers and peddlers and embodied “Kenawy”; the disabled newspaper vendor himself. In 1963, an epic historical piece was introduced to the public in El Nasser Salah El Din. The movie cost an arm and the leg at that time; 800 soldiers and 120 cavalries were used to represent the army who fought for the right of ruling Jerusalem. After the extravagant defeat in 1967, he started a new heroic quartet that expressed the struggle of the lower class in fighting social injustice and brutality and directly accused the political corruption of the 1967 defeat. It started with El Ard, which took place in a rural region, representing the poor peasants’ agony, followed by El Ikhtyar, El Asfour and finally, Awdet El Ibn El Dal; which manifests the depression of Egyptian youth after 1967 and the hope of the new generation in building a better future.

Companies refused to fund El Asfour as they thought they’d be confronting the superiors of the country, so the determined filmmaker founded his own company with two others to fund his projects and El Asfour came to life. In 1979, the prominent filmmaker started his autobiographical quartet; starting with Eskendria Leh?, then Hadota Masrya, followed by Eskendrya Kaman w Kaman and ending with Eskendria New York.

In the 90’s he was in court twice; first because of EL Mohager as it portrayed prophet Joseph. The second time was for EL Maseer, which was about the 12th century Andalusian Muslim philosopher, Ibn Rushd, and his fight against the dictator leadership and Islamic extremists. Heya Fawda, the finale of the globetrotter, showed police brutality and the social injustice of contemporary Egypt and forecasted people’s uprising in 2011. Unfortunately, illness prevented Chahine from proceeding with the filming of Heya Fawda, but director Khaled Youssef managed to complete this masterpiece.

The victorious journey was not only rewarded by several prizes from different international and local film festivals; it was also rewarded by his never ending legacy. “He had the boldness to give a great opportunity to a young beginner just because he foresees that he can do it,” said Marianne Khoury, Chahine’s niece. Yousry Nasr Allah, one of Chahine’s students, said, “The most attractive thing about Chahine was his generosity in teaching people around him.” And that’s why they called him the creator of stars; he isn’t only credited for his movies; but also for introducing us to special filmmakers and artists; Khaled Youssef, Ali Badrakhan and Atef El Tayeb, who you can refer to as the pioneers of social realism. Additionally, Ruby, Amr Saad, Hany Salama, Khaled El Nabawy and more first appeared on Chahine’s silver screen.

Although he left us beautiful projects that future generations can enjoy forever, we all miss him. We miss his thick glasses, enthusiasm and eccentricity. We’re all curious to know his speculations and opinions of current events. But we are sure that he would have been the most active filmmaker right now, documenting iconic moments and revealing people’s notions.

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