Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Le Destin

In news arguably more germane to the subject of this column, Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, the leading figure in Arab cinema, died in Cairo on Sunday, at age 82. Chahine's story is both one of tragedy and triumph, and given his cultural and historical surroundings, it could scarcely be otherwise. When Chahine began his filmmaking career in 1950, Egypt was still a British colony; he had the distinction of making movies that appeared to criticize virtually every current in his nation's recent history: Western imperialism, pan-Arab nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism and religious intolerance (Chahine himself was a Christian), and the autocratic post-Sadat regime of Hosni Mubarak.

He also made movies in almost every genre you can imagine; I've seen only a few myself, and most remain hard to find or totally unavailable on North American DVD. His most famous work is unquestionably "Cairo Station" (1958), a neorealist classic in which Chahine himself starred as a disabled newspaper boy obsessed with a pretty lemonade seller. His better-known work also includes "Saladin" (1963), a left-leaning biopic about the 12th-century sultan who defended Jerusalem against the Crusaders; the Aswan dam documentary "Once Upon a Time on the Nile" (1978); and two films sharply critical of the Sadat era, the murder mystery "The Choice" (1970) and the oft-banned political drama "The Sparrow" (1973).

A Roman Catholic and an eclectic sexual adventurer in a puritanical Muslim country, Chahine grew up as an upper-class kid who spoke French and English better than Arabic. All over the Western world, people who have seen few or none of his movies will write respectful obituaries today; one can only hope the response in Egypt is not the official silence that greeted so much of his work. Chahine is but one more example of the universal rule that real artists are exiles from their own culture, by choice or by force. The man or woman who offers to show society its true face, rather than flattering its vanity, is never welcome.

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