The great defiant: Youssef Chahine rewrites film narrative in the ‘Alexandria film series’

This year at Liverpool Arab Arts Festival: ‘Shadow and light’ celebrates the life and films of visionary Arab film maker Youssef Chahine, providing UK pemieres of three of his beautifully remastered works ‘Alexandria…why’, 1979,  An Egyptian story’, 1982, and Alexandria again and forever’, 1989,

Ahead of the series, we share a review by Dr Khalid Ali, Film and media correspondent ‘Medical Humanities’ journal, and founder of ‘Egypt Medfest’, who will also be taking part in the Q&A following the first film, ‘Alexandria… Why?’ 

“Over the course of 57 years, Youssef Chahine (25th January 1926- 27th July 2008) established himself as the most celebrated Egyptian and Arab film auteur (1). In 1997 he received a lifetime achievement award in Cannes Film Festival for his contribution to film as a director, producer, script writer and actor. After studying film in Pasadena, he made his first feature film ‘Baba Amin’ in 1952 at the age of 23. His early career was notable for trialling several film genres from socially-aware dramas ‘Son of Nile’ 1951 (, ‘The Blazing Sun’ 1954 (, to historical epics such as ‘Jamila, the Algerian’ 1958 (,_the_Algerian) , and ‘Saladin, the Victorious’ 1963 ( In ‘Cairo Station’ 1958 (, he proved his acting talent as Qinawi, the sexually-frustrated newspaper seller obsessed with Hannuma, the station flirtatious drinks seller.

Chahine always challenged conventional storytelling styles in Egyptian cinema. However, his most bold statement as a visionary artist materialised in the ‘Alexandria’ film series: ‘Alexandria… Why?’, ‘An Egyptian Story’, and ‘Alexandria Again and forever’. Using his life story as an inspiration, the films follow his journey from a young wide-eyed adolescent ‘Victoria College’ pupil in Alexandria eager to study film in the USA to an international award-winning film maker.

 ‘Alexandria… Why?’ starts his journey with film in 1942 at the height of WW2; Yahia (his fictionalised alter-ego fascinated with Shakespeare’s Hamlet) is surrounded by an extended Christian family; a resilient mother, a dignified idealist father, a strict old-fashioned grandmother, and a romantic sister. The richly detailed characters include school friends from Muslim and Jewish faiths and their families highlighting the cosmopolitan status of war-afflicted Alexandria. Regular Allied forces air raids deepen the Egyptian’s hatred for the British occupation that they root for Adolf Hitler to win Al Alamein battle and free Egyptians of British rule. The socio-political scene is closely observed; drunken British soldiers roaming the streets of Alexandria, one of them has a same-sex affair with a wealthy Egyptian aristocrat, a Jewish woman falls in love with a Muslim activist, while war lords are making money from trading in arms.

‘An Egyptian Story’ begins with Yahia as an established director who is still struggling to operate within the stifling Egyptian movie-industry in 1973. His chain-smoking habit, and explosive temper cause him to suffer a serious heart attack in a film set. He flies to London for an emergency heart bypass operation. In a story line reminiscent of Bob Fosse’s 1979 ‘All That Jazz’ (, a fantastical sequence is played in court with Yahia defending himself against all sorts of accusations from his mother, sister and wife. Chahine does not shy away from portraying himself as a selfish egocentric artist. He moans ‘’no one understands me’’, but what is worse is that he starts to wonder if he can still understand those around him. His inner child appears in court to blame the adult Yahia for stifling his creative outlets. Juxtaposed with the highly charged emotional court scenes, we see Yahia travelling to various film festivals from Cannes to Moscow suffering a series of frustrations in losing out in best actor and director award categories in films such as ‘Cairo station’.

‘Alexandria again and forever’ opens with a melancholic song and a tribute to ‘Hamlet’:

‘’To be or not to be, that is the question

Is it nobler to suffer in patience the slings and arrows of an outrageous fortune

Or take up arms against a sea of troubles

By opposing them, we can end them

We can die or sleep.’’

Adopting a semi-realist style, Chahine documents the Egyptian actors’ 1987 sit-in and hunger strike against a corrupt union law passed by the Parliament to allow the actors’ union lead to nominate himself indefinitely. In a parallel storyline, the film follows Yahia’s disappointment in Amr (a fictionalised character for Mohsen Mohy Eldin, an actor who was adopted by Chahine in four films before Mohy Eldin ended their artistic collaboration, mentoring relationship and friendship). Yahia finds a new muse in Nadia (Yousra) a feisty actress dreaming of playing ‘Cleopatra’. Yahia and Nadia fight and argue over director’s tyranny, freedom of speech, and ‘Alexander, the Great’ in elaborate dance musical numbers. Chahine here plays the role of Yahia himself, and in the process ‘exorcises demons of a love-hate relationship with Mohy Eldin’. In one scene, he exerts a violent revenge against the actor who betrayed him, but at the same time acknowledges the right of actors to exert their own identity and vision in the film-making process.

Chahine’s Alexandria film series is far from a self-centred, narcissistic exercise by their maker; in these films he explores themes of heritage and legacy, cultural and sexual Identity, memories and nostalgia, artists alienation from the audience, and Egypt’s role in pan-Arab nationalism. Chahine’s beloved Alexandria holds centre stage as an influential character in all stories. Constantly questioning and challenging norms, Chahine defied stereotypes and pushed the boundaries in portraying and analysing the human experience.”



Image courtesy of Misr International Films