Arab and African Cinema’s Uncertain Future

By Kamran Rastegar

land-youssef-chahine.jpgThe Land, 1969

The Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine’s recent passing has led to a wide variety of salutes and memorials, in the Arab world as well as in Europe and the US. Obituaries and homages by friends of the filmmaker have noted his prolific output – over 40 feature films – and numerous international awards, including his recognition with the lifetime achievement award from the Cannes Film Festival. Since his passing many festivals, including prominent British ones, have seen it as their responsibility to give new attention to his work. In Edinburgh, the Africa in Motion festival – the largest African film festival in the UK – will be opening with Chahine’s anti-colonial classic, al-Ardh (The Land, 1969), placing Chahine rightly within the framework of African filmmaking.

Inevitably, with the passing of a figure of Chahine’s stature and longevity, there will always be disagreements among critics over how to characterize the work. Some Arab critics noted that at least some of Chahine’s work was less “Egyptian” or “Arab” than “European”, while some European and American critics commented witheringly on the quality of Chahine’s later and more popular films, which tended to be commercial successes in Egypt. Drawing out this dichotomy is perhaps too simplistic a summary of critical responses to his work, but it does offer a doorway into understanding certain choices Chahine made or had to make during the course of his long career, during which time he not only came to be seen both as an arthouse award-winner but also proved capable as a commercial and populist filmmaker rooted within the rich tradition of Egyptian popular cinema. Furthermore, his great productivity over the course of several decades offers a fascinating object lesson into some of the most important questions faced by filmmaking that falls into the various frameworks applicable to Chahine’s career: Arab, African, Third Cinema, Postcolonial cinema, and so on.

al-massir-youssef-chanine.jpgAl Massir, 1998

Chahine’s passing will likely later be seen as a watershed moment in the aforementioned cinemas, as certain fundamental shifts are now taking place in world filmmaking. But before looking ahead, we should first look back over Chahine’s fascinating life to see how well it lays out the changing fortunes of Egyptian and postcolonial world cinema as a whole. Chahine’s youth coincided with the establishment and expansion of Egypt’s successful commercial cinema of the 1930s-50s, and his first films were produced within this very context. Chahine’s earliest works were dramas that fit perfectly within the domestic commercial cinema, while subtly weaving political and social themes into the entertainment formula (as did many other directors of this same period). Bab al-Hadid (Cairo Station, 1958) is perhaps the best example of this earlier style, and it is still seen by most commentators as one of Chahine’s most memorable works. Just as Chahine came to maturity as a filmmaker, Egypt’s cinema came to be transformed into a cinema with strong nationalist and overtly political currents, as a consequence of the 1952 revolution and afterwards the industry was marked both positively and negatively by a high degree of state support and involvement. However, after the revolution, Chahine’s political ideals assumed a fuller voice in a social climate energized by the socialist ambitions of Nasserism and other issues such as the confrontation with Israel. It was here that Chahine accepted a proposal to direct the state-sponsored Crusades epic Nasir Salah al-Din (Salah al-Din the Victorious, 1963), a clear parable for the rise of Gamal Abd al-Nasir and the aspirations of Arab nationalism. It must be said, though, that Chahine was one of many Egyptian filmmakers to also address the limitations of Egypt’s post-revolutionary idealism, by critiquing Abd al-Nasir’s authoritarianism and by examining the wound of Egypt’s spectacular defeat in the war of 1967. In al-Usfur (The Sparrow, 1972), Chahine juxtaposes hyperbolic governmental announcements about the war with the slow realization by ordinary Cairenes that the fight was in fact lost. The last scene of the film remains one of the most poignant exemplifications of the confusion and disillusion the defeat brought to Egypt.

cairo-station-youssef-chahine.jpgCairo Station, 1958

By the 1970s, when Sadat’s free market policies and other factors led to a collapse of Egypt’s film industry, Chahine reinvented himself again, this time by working with European (largely French) producers and producing a string of works relatively little known in Egypt, despite the many awards they gained in top international film festivals. The three films of his Alexandria Trilogy delighted European viewers and catapulted Chahine into international attention – who now often set him forward as the “best” Arab filmmaker (a distinction that often grated upon other Arab filmmakers and critics who saw in this a kind of tokenism). The trilogy wove the personal and autobiographical with the historical and social, challenging taboos (for example, by sympathetically addressing bisexuality and homosexuality) along the way. However, by the 1990s, Chahine once again changed hats and began to produce works that – often to the dismay of his prior champions in Europe and the US – used popular commercial idioms to explore socio-political themes. In a film such as Al-Masir (Destiny, 1998) Chahine would cast popular singers and TV soap stars to sing and dance a melodrama addressing religious extremism and pluralism, set in middle-ages Andalusia. In Sukut H’Nsawar (Silence, We’re Rolling, 2001), the same casting formula was used in another song-and-dance melodrama about corruption and consumerism in contemporary Egypt. Chahine never concerned himself with offering apologies to his confused arthouse supporters for this shift, and directly aligned himself with popular sentiments in Egypt not only in his filmmaking but also in his public comments, voicing angry criticism at the effects of US policies in the Arab world, and appearing on the shoulders of students at public (and often banned) demonstrations against the Iraq war among other issues.

youssef-chahine.jpgYoussef Chaninie

As for the future: In October 2008, just months after Chahine’s passing, Abu Dhabi inaugurated the lavish “Middle East International Film Festival” – this coming just a few years on the heels of a competing and no less opulent Dubai International Film Festival. These two festivals have dramatically redrawn the map of Arab cinema, tearing the focus away from Egypt (where the Cairo Film Festival, once the apex showcase of the Arab film industry and one of the most important festivals in Africa, has by now greatly diminished in significance) to new geographical and economic arenas. Many Arab filmmakers view these new developments with some trepidation, while still hoping that new opportunities will emerge. The Persian Gulf Emirates, rarely mentioned in histories of Arab cinema production, are now pouring immense resources into developing an infrastructure for cinema production. Production companies in the Gulf are looking for “crossover” opportunities, working on Arab stories with Hollywood technicians and stars. More significantly, these festivals are looking beyond Hollywood to Bollywood, Beijing and other regions in the world of cinema, placing their own production ambitions into a new transnational framework. Along with other developments around the world, we may soon face a bewildering new landscape for non-Western filmmakers, portending the rise of new centres and new patrons and a redrawing of the global map of world cinema. The economic contexts within which Chahine flourished – first, a local commercial cinema, then a nationalized and nationalist cinema, then as a client of European production funds, then finally back to a more domestic and populist idiom of filmmaking – Chahine now serves as a marker of earlier ideals and earlier contexts. It is appropriate that the new Abu Dhabi film festival features as a major attraction a large exhibition of photographs and artefacts relating to Chahine’s life and work. By celebrating his legacy, the festival seems to simultaneously highlight the continuity between these new developments as well as drawing a stark distinction between the new and the old. Another great master of Arab, African and world cinema has passed on, leaving his fellow filmmakers to find their own way in traversing the uncertain terrain ahead.


Kamran Rastegar is a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and teaches literature, cinema and cultural studies of Iran and the Arab World.