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UCLA Archive Retrospective Celebrates Chahine's Work

Movies: The veteran Egyptian director is finally gaining recognition among international audiences.

October 21, 1999|LLOYD CHESLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ever since John Travolta and Johnny Depp presented director Youssef Chahine with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, tributes to the Egyptian filmmaker's work have taken place almost continuously, at sites ranging from the New York Film Festival to the Art Institute of Chicago to the Vancouver International Film Festival.

On Thursday, the UCLA Film and Television Archive launches the latest retrospective, a five-day, nine-film series honoring the 73-year-old director. It's the first time many of Chahine's films--he's made 39 since 1950--have ever been shown in Southern California. The series covers his career from his international breakthrough, "Cairo Station" (1958), to his award-winning 1997 "Destiny." (The film will also be shown at Laemmle's Music Hall Theater in Beverly Hills starting Oct. 29).

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Chahine's reputation comes from his unique style, which uses sweeping camera moves brimming over with color and sound, as well as his eclecticism and his ability to open a window on the Middle East to international audiences.

"Apart from Hollywood, there are certain centers of filmmaking in the world, like Mexico, Hong Kong, France, India. Egypt is another one," says UCLA film programmer Cheng-Sim Lim. "The Egyptian film industry, since the 1930s, has been the most important cinema in the Middle East. And Youssef Chahine has been the most important Egyptian filmmaker since the 1950s."

Chahine's films are at once epic and personal, his themes political and humanistic. He has mined and re-imagined the gamut of film genres, merging biography with fantasy, the historical with the musical, the thriller with the love story.

"People's idea of the Middle East is entirely misguided," Chahine once said in an interview. In his "Alexandria, Why?" (1978), a character says, "When my ancestors were building the Pyramids, your granny was eating grandpa's forearm."

The autobiographical "Alexandria, Why," which opens the festival, is a multilayered, exuberant epic set in one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities. "We were living with 15 nationalities there," Chahine wrote of Alexandria, where he grew up. "We never asked what religion someone was. I reject all kinds of frontiers: physical, religion, race."

As was the character in the film, Chahine is the son of an Arab father and Italian mother. As is reflected in the film, he attended a Catholic private school in the early '40s and learned about Shakespeare and Hollywood musicals as the approach of the Nazi armies brought the war to his backyard.

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Having been born to the poor side of the family, he solicited funds from rich relatives to go to Hollywood and study at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1948.

"Alexandria, Why," like the rest of the films in the series, reveals aspects of Egyptian history and society that few Westerners know, a sensitive issue with the director.

"I am dying to have the Americans see my films," Chahine has said. "Our area is so troubled and the Americans know so little about it. Sometimes they make decisions without actually knowing what people are like or how the people feel and think. You can only know that through films."

"An Egyptian Story" continues the autobiographical trilogy, but in a most unusual way. The story is told from inside the protagonist's chest cavity, where his soul watches bypass surgery and ruminates on his follies. "I am complicated and childish. I like to be spoiled," admits the character representing Chahine, who displays all his warts and insecurities in his films.

"An Egyptian Story" chronicles Chahine's career, beginning with his return from Southern California in 1949 through the late '70s. We follow the young filmmaker as he plunges into the vibrant Egyptian cinema of the day. We watch him create his first international success, "Cairo Station," the story of a cripple--played by Chahine himself--in love with a gorgeous woman.

"Cairo Station" is emblematic of Chahine, drawing on diverse styles, from bittersweet comedy to film noir. And despite the violent ending, both killer and victim have our sympathy. Chahine once explained his universal theme this way: "Everywhere you go, people are beautiful and wonderful. Personally, I couldn't love them more. I think that's the rule. Everywhere there is beauty."

Despite the success of "Cairo Station," for the next 20 years and 11 films, Chahine's sole claim to fame in the West was his discovery of actor Omar Sharif. But he was the most popular filmmaker in the Arab world. In 1969 he made "The Land," a classic example of social realism. His work became even more political.

"The Sparrow" (1972), a lament for losing the 1967 war with Israel and, is so critical of the regime that it was banned in Egypt for two years. The film is uplifted by its female characters, who refuse to acknowledge defeat, a perhaps surprising conclusion from a country too often characterized as both misogynist and reactionary.

"The Emigrant" (1994) is Chahine's version of the biblical story of Joseph as a progressive champion of pluralism and individuality. It was banned in most of the Arab world because of opposition from the militant Islamic movement, for which the director has no sympathy.

That controversy inspired "Destiny," the story of the philosopher Averroes, who lived in Arab Spain and preached tolerance. Averroes also had his work banned, but for Chahine the film would bring triumphant recognition at Cannes.

Noted Lim, who credits Cannes and other retrospectives for making international audiences aware of Chahine: "His recongition has been a long time coming."

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"The Films of Youssef Chahine" retrospective runs today through Nov. 2 Screenings take place at the James Bridges Theater on the northeast corner of UCLA's campus (nearest cross streets are Sunset Boulevard and Hilgard Avenue in Westwood.) Admission is $6, $4 for students and seniors. For information call: (310) 206--FILM.

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