Friday, February 25, 2022

Destiny (al-Massir)

Director Youssef Chahine

Chahine at Cannes with Lifetime Achievement Award

Chahine on the set with Nour El-Sharif

Chahine on the set with Laila Eloui

Statue of Averroës in Córdoba, Spain
























































DESTINY (al-Massir)                         A-                                                                                 Egypt  France  (135 mi)  1997  d:  Youssef Chahine                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Ideas have wings, no one can stop their flight.

Screening in competition at Cannes, this film was accompanied by a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Cannes Film Festival, his first release in the West, and first to screen in America, followed a year later by a 15-film retrospective, finally allowing the West some exposure to this heralded director.  Chahine set up his own production company, Misr International, in the early 1970’s, run by his niece, Marianne Khoury, which gave the director greater artistic freedom.  Beautifully shot on 35mm by Mohsen Nasr, music composed by long-time Chahine collaborator Kamal al-Tawil, while the dance choreography is by Walid Aouni, among his more accomplished efforts, this is the director’s response to a rise in religious fanaticism, as his earlier film THE EMIGRANT (1994) was banned by Islamist censorship, though by that time 750,000 Egyptians had already seen the film, at the time Chahine’s highest grossing box-office success.  Set in 12th century Andalusia in Spain, when medieval Córdoba was a thriving secular and multicultural society under Arab rule, a cosmopolitan mix of people from different ethnicities, classes, and faiths, embodied by Caliph El Mansour (Mahmoud Hemida), a sort of enlightened, proud despot whose two sons are great disappointments to him, the Crown Prince Nasser (Khaled El Nabaoui), who thinks only of women and philosophy, and Abdallah (Hani Salama), who thinks only of wine, song, and dancing, his one true love, though the story concerns Ibn Rushd (Nour El-Sharif), known in the West as Averroës (Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126—1198) - Internet Encyclopedia of ...), one of the most influential philosophers in Islam, whose work played a very important role in shaping the ideas of the philosophers of the age of Enlightenment, revealing his influence not only in Islamic civilization but also Western secularism.  The film accentuates the intellectual debate between Averroës and the fundamentalists in the mosque where he lectures.  Averroës is a scholar who believes in the power of Reason and its ability to question, analyze. and make conclusions, author of more than 100 books, writing extensively about philosophy, religion, medicine, astronomy, physics, psychology, mathematics, and Islamic justice under the law, where his philosophic commentaries on Aristotle were renowned, while also serving as the Chief Judge and Court Physician.  What’s immediately apparent is that Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Gypsies have been living happily together under the authority of the caliph, yet the film dramatically opens in ominous fashion with a Catholic heretic in Languedoc, France burned at the stake, Joan of Arc style, for the sin of translating the works of the Arab philosopher Averroës into Latin.  Undeterred, his son Joseph (Fares Rahouma) travels to Spain in order to learn under Averroës and engage in the ongoing debate between faith and reason, becoming one of his most avid followers.  The story pits Averroës and his beliefs that the Koran, the sacred scripture of Islam, and everything that comes from divine law is subject to interpretation, exuding an open freedom of expression.  But democracy degenerates into tyranny under the caliph, with Averroës railing against aristocratic political cowardice and the rigid indoctrination of religious fundamentalism eventually promoted by the caliph, bowing to the political pressure from the Islamic extremism from his Machiavellian adviser, Sheikh Riad (Ahmed Fouad Sélim), creating a cult of followers who willingly terrorize and murder those perceived as enemies of Islam, which eventually includes Averroës, whose books are banned and burned in public, a telling sign of the religious intolerance rapidly spreading throughout the Arab world, foreshadowing similar signs developing in the modern era.  Chahine warned against the upheavals yet to come throughout Arab countries, like the rapid-fire spread of Arab Spring uprisings giving rise to militant and fanatic insurgencies such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, al-Nusra Front, and other extremist factions, making the fight against religious dogmatism in the Arab world as an integral aspect of the anti-colonial struggle for liberation, national self-determination, and modernization.  At the time this film was written, several prominent Egyptian intellectuals were targeted and persecuted, like Nasr Abou Zeid, persecuted for his ʻblasphemousʼ interpretation of the Koran, Nawal Saadawi, a feminist who targeted the issue of female circumcision, and Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s leading novelist and Nobel laureate who wrote for over 50 years exploring marginal aspects of working class life in Egypt, including prostitutes and homosexuals, and celebrated working class sexual promiscuity while expressing disdain for middle and upper class hypocritical Puritanism, all victims of scare mongering and direct attacks by religious fanatics who were promoting dogmatic religious agendas.  At the time of the film’s release, Serbs were slaughtering ethnic Albanians, while the U.S. was bombing the Serbs, a conflict born out of religious and ethnic differences that date back thousands of years.  Chahine and co-writer Khaled Youssef have cleverly written an interwoven historical narrative with brilliantly colorful musical song and dance sequences rivalling even Bollywood numbers, that have a lot more raw, Gypsy-like sensuality, while also creating an excellent expression of religious fanaticism and terrorism, where especially impressive are some of the shooting locations from Syria and Lebanon.

Chahine creates a rather idyllic Gypsy community in Andalusia, an exile culture born out of music and dance, accentuated by colorful clothes, jewelry, shared food, and musical instruments to generate poetry through song, with dance celebrated by young and old, offering a narrative thread that embodies and teaches cultural values through family, love, and learning, reminiscent of musical culture depicted in Tony Gatlif’s LATCHO DROM (1993), which also offers a taste of historical persecution that forces the Romany culture of gypsies into nomadic travels from India to Spain.  This warm humanism mirrors the tolerance reflected in the teachings of Averroës, as embodied by the gypsy poet Marwan (Mohamed Mounir), an Afro-Arab who introduces and sings each song, displaying an irrepressible desire to enjoy life, to eat and drink, and to break out into musical performances, prompting the rhythmic and sensuous dancing of Manuella (Laila Eloui), / Mohamed mounir YouTube (3:17).  Marwan acts as a surrogate father figure by introducing the caliph’s son Abdallah to the gypsy life, just as Averroës is the surrogate father to Nasser.  A love affair exists between Nasser and a beautiful young gypsy girl Salma (Rogeena), where in one infamous shot the camera focuses on the bare legs of a standing Nasser, still dripping wet after a dip in the nearby waters, viewed with a homoerotic gaze by the camera, with Salma compliantly looking up at him,  It’s an extended moment filled with romantic longing that simply lingers onscreen.  He later proposes marriage to her, clearly defying his father’s wishes, as she represents a lower class.  An avowed secularist, Chahine was appalled by the rise of religious fundamentalism, both Christian and Muslim alike in his beloved Egypt, and much like Averroës, Chahine engaged in an ongoing debate about faith and reason, which raged with equal ferocity among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  Chahine found parallels between his own situation and that of Averroës, whose devotion to his own fundamental ethics and principles led him into conflicts with an entrenched fundamentalist opposition that accused him of blasphemy.  Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the film is coupling his philosophy with the poetry of song and dance, taking the form of a Gregorian chant, Sufi hymns, and gypsy dance, which assumes a role of defiance and resistance against the oppressive tactics of the state and religious power, as Marwan is openly attacked and stabbed in the neck (exactly how fundamentalists attacked Nobel laureate writer Naguib Mahfouz just a few years earlier), miraculously surviving, yet unable to speak afterwards, needing plenty of time to recover, so when he sings again, it rallies the community as an oppositional force to the rampant Islamic extremism which has taken hold of the government under the caliph, who mistakenly believes all the stirred-up fervor is in support of him, but it’s the religious zealots who command the power from a weakened caliph, plotting with the Spaniards against him.  Similarly, in the 1970’s, Anwar Sadat, the former president of Egypt, allowed and supported the fundamentalist groups in an attempt to get rid of the leftists and Nasserites, however, he was assassinated by the same groups in 1981.  Caught up in the rising tide, Abdallah joins forces with the radical extremists, who brainwash their followers like a cult, requiring absolute obedience, willing to carry out any order, including murder.  When he’s seen at the sheikh’s compound, those who know him best determine to rescue him, though he adamantly refuses to be rescued, or even accept food, condemning all of them, claiming they are all heathens and infidels, forcing the community to tie him up as a prisoner of his own senses until he can return to his former self.  In what is arguably the sequence of the film, they do what they do best, which is break out into song, reviving their grim spirit, as if their soul had been snatched from them, providing a communal spirit of love and transcendence, We love this film - Al Massir (Destiny) - Youssef Chahine YouTube (4:20).  What quickly follows is Marwan’s murder at the hands of the zealots (a fatwa was announced against him, similar to the Islamic fatwa announced in 1988 by the Ayatollah Khomeini against novelist Salman Rushdie, providing contemporary relevance to the film), challenging Abdallah’s allegiance, as Marwan was his mentor and closest companion, who embraced him unconditionally as a brother and welcomed him into their family.  This hateful atrocity appears to change Abdallah’s spirit, mourning the loss of his friend, begging forgiveness from Averroës for his waywardness.  The real test, however, is if his brother Nasser can forgive him, rejected initially, but they eventually embrace in an embellished moment.

Chahine’s commitment to ordinary people is more than just a matter of narrative convenience, instead revealing itself in how far he reconstructs his artistic and socio-historical elements and motifs and how he turns passive spectators into collaborators asked to take a position.  The film is an explicit condemnation of all kinds of religious fundamentalism, constructed in linear fashion, a departure from the flashbacks and dream sequences of many of the director’s other films, avoiding the use of handheld cameras or natural lighting.  While assuming the appearance of a historical epic, it’s a passionate melodrama about the manipulation of religion turned into a full-scale musical, which allows the director to transcend the limitations of the period in which it is set, as the songs offer political commentary that are as relevant today as it was in the period it was set, reaffirming the ongoing conflict between dogmatic traditions and Arab modernism.  Drawing upon African as well as Arabic traditions, Chahine draws upon a coalescence of oral storytelling, poetry recital in songs, yet also music and dancing, while also combining Arab, Spanish, gypsy, and flamenco with old and new styles of music and dance formats, articulating for contemporary audiences a historically heterogeneous Arab culture that suggests music and dancing have always been compatible with Islamic or Arab traditions.  Another method Chahine employs is integrating elaborate costumes with ornate architecture and spacious landscapes, where medieval France and Andalusian Spain are similar, both green and mountainous, where the Spanish home interiors are brightly colored and richly decorated. He also accentuates the use of an early telescope that uses the magnifying power of water.  Its use allows Marwan to monitor the secret training activities by the fundamentalist sect in a remote castle location.  Another important element is the use of contemporary colloquial Egyptian rather than the classic Arab dialect that was traditionally used in historical films.  This sends an important message that history and tradition can be recontextualized, exactly as modernists from earlier centuries had done, suggesting language and understanding is not rigid, but subject to new interpretations.  According to Jesuis Baher, Youssef Chahine: The Father of Egyptian Cinema, “Chahine’s film perfectly encapsulates the never ending ideological conflict between East and West, Reason and Dogmatism, and Religion and Secularism.  His films transcend their time and space, and they celebrate life, love, and sex while criticizing corrupt globalism, religious fundamentalism, and oriental authoritarianism.”  With Averroës able to read the writing on the wall, fighting against religious intolerance and political tyranny, he realizes his beliefs are under siege and that he could be the next victim.  His students and friends start a collective campaign to copy his works in their entirety, ensuring the survival of his thoughts, knowing they will become a target.  Joseph takes a collection of manuscripts, hoping to smuggle them into France, while Nasser assumes a similar mission transporting copies to Egypt.  When some of the manuscripts are discovered, Christians use them as a pretext to invade Andalusia, with the caliph blaming Averroës for the disturbance, joining forces with the fundamentalist sheikh, leading a group who are experts at harnessing hate.  Averroës instantly resigns his post, no longer able to render Islamic legal decisions unobstructed by religious extremists and radicals.  As fanaticism and tyranny spread across Andalusia, Averroës prepares to leave, packing up all his belongings on a cart as they pass through the center of town which is organizing a massive book burning, as his books have been banned by the sheikh, mirroring the opening sequence where a man was burned at the stake, Destiny (1997) by Youssef Chahine, Clip: Burning books: Ideas have wings/No one can stop their flight YouTube (2:29).  If Islamic fires end the film, it was a Christian burning at the stake that started it.  Only in retrospect do we realize the full extent of how personalized this film is for Chahine, as the dangers of Islamic fatwas or Christian inquisitions are implicitly the same, as they link the dangers of fundamentalists, using all means to deny freedom of expression and block the spread of progressive ideas, something Chahine already experienced himself. 


The events of September 11, 2001 imposed a more horrific dimension on the issue of Islamic fundamentalism than Chahine could ever have anticipated, and although he foresaw its dangers in 1997, he could never have imagined or suspected the full scope of horror unleashed on 9/11.  In the aftermath, with an inflamed American desire for war and retribution by any means, including the use of torture, a global storm of human rights abuses are unleashed in the War on Terrorism, where Arabs are perceived as terrorists by Western media, along with widespread Islamophobia.  It’s important to realize not only Western countries have lost thousands of soldiers in the global war on terrror, but the Muslim world has lost many more civilians and armed security personnel caused by Islamic extremism, where longstanding conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Mali will fuel future jihadi recruitment, especially over the long term, suggesting the Muslim world has been as traumatized by violent Islamic extremism as the rest of the world in the decades following 9/11.  These developments make it more difficult to hold onto Chahine’s democratic optimism that faith in reason and love will prevail and that ideas will endure.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Alexandria Again and Forever (Iskanderija, Kaman oue Kaman)


ALEXANDRIA AGAIN AND FOREVER (Iskanderija, Kaman oue Kaman)             C+          Egypt  France  (100 mi)  1989  d: Youssef Chahine

Dialogues are in Arabic, it becomes more humorous, French for love scenes, English for accuracy and precision.  My father is Arab, my mother is Italian, my wife is French.  I speak Spanish and a bit of Russian quickly and unintelligibly.  As I am from Alexandria, I can no doubt conjure up Greek as well.           —Yehia (Youssef Chahine)

The final segment of his Alexandrian Trilogy, an Egyptian and French co-production, co-written by Chahine in collaboration with Yusri Nasrullah, placing Chahine himself in the now grown-up role of Yehia (played by Mohsen Mohieddin in the first Trilogy installment), the autobiographical alter-ego of the filmmaker, already feeling some success as a filmmaker, looking comfortable in a large apartment with wall-to-wall windows overlooking the sea.  But the film opens to a mournful Arabic song of Hamlet’s soliloquy, so instrumental to his film Alexandria...Why? (Iskandnerija…lih?) (1979), though the seaside setting of Hamlet in a sleepy Egyptian fishing village is something of a stretch, with Hamlet walking on the beach pondering his fate under an enlarged skeletal frame of a wooden ship sitting in its own ship graveyard.  This is a more fractured and less focused version, which may be more difficult for viewers, as it never really finds its footing, trying too hard to accentuate the Alexandrian identity through a Western lens, force feeding, some might say, all in an effort to repeat themes better realized in his original Trilogy film, not nearly as provocative or challenging and without much of an interest factor, feeling like this is territory already covered.  Chahine is a known bisexual, splitting screen time between two romantic partners, a younger actor playing Hamlet in the first half, Amr (Amr Abdulgalil), and a firebrand actress leading a labor movement in the second half, Nadia (Youssra), where the personal and the professional intersect, often hard to tell the difference, though his imagination grows more emboldened with Amr, investing a decade molding him into the actor he desires.  But Amr grows tired of being told what to do, exhibiting a sense of rebellion, trying to remove himself from the obsessional straightjacket of confinement, always having to be what someone else wants, never what he wants to be.  When Yehia insists he play the role of Hamlet, Amr senses the part is too demanding for his talents and refuses the role, while also having to fend off homosexual rumors about their sexual liaison, storming out of the apartment in disgust, yet Yehia persists, with his wife Gigi (Menha Batraoui) threatening to leave if he runs after him, claiming he’ll return if he wants the part.  Merging fiction with real life, this becomes a memory piece, sitting alone, remembering his overbearing approach on the set, making Amr brutally endure repeated retakes, always overly critical of his performance, never satisfied, becoming a cruel and tyrannical taskmaster that borders on sadism, demanding perfection, which is apparently different in his eyes than that of Amr, who struggles with a growing resentment.  However, inspired by music he plays on a Walkman, Nat King Cole singing Walkin' My Baby Back Home - YouTube (2:42), he imagines Chahine’s earlier triumph at the Berlin Film Festival where he took home a prestigious Silver Bear 2nd prize for Alexandria...Why? (Iskandnerija…lih?) (1979), the first Arabic film to win an award, recreated with Amr at his side, both beaming with pride, celebrating their relationship, extending into a fantasy soft-shoe dance sequence emulating SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952), but replacing rain with a light cover of snow on the streets.  It’s a mesmerizing sequence, with Chahine performing his own song and dance routines some forty years after he did the same in Cairo Station (Bab el Hadid) (1958).  When they bring a film to Cannes, they expect Amr to win a coveted best actor prize, but when he doesn’t, it results in a memorable dance of disappointment performed by Amr around the fountains of Cannes, where the garish backdrop could just as easily be Las Vegas.

While continually melding the story of a filmmaker and his country onto the screen, merging fiction with real life, what follows goes absolutely haywire, as Yehia imagines Amr in a grand burlesque, Jesus Christ Superstar rendition of Macedonian King Alexander the Great, who founded the city of Alexandria in 332 B.C, becoming a cheesy toga costume drama resorting to gratuitous comedy sketches that resemble the kitschy production values of Woody Allen’s SLEEPER (1973), with deliberately sped-up shots, referencing Keystone cops slapstick, resorting to a kind of pedestrian self-mockery, which some may find entertaining, but it goes off the rails into unwatchable territory, falling apart completely, bordering on the ridiculous, particularly when adding lyrically-challenged songs with Chahine singing strangely off-key.  This quest for the visually spectacular turns into a deranged delusions of grandeur set-piece gone wrong, though it does add some serious questions about how Yehia loftily imagines Amr, or is it how he views himself, all of which adds to the confusion that comes with staging such an exalted parody piece.  This conflict with his leading man causes Yehia to reevaluate his life as a film director, the industry itself, and his own sexual and romantic longings, growing ever more disillusioned after Amr mysteriously disappears without a word.  Finding himself in limbo, shocked that his favorite actor will no longer work with him, he connects himself to an industry strike by actors, filmmakers, and musicians over a law forbidding term limits of union leaders, with the government hoping to extend control over the arts, including pressure on filmmakers with censorship, something Chahine fought against his entire lifetime.  In fact, Egypt has governed in an increasingly authoritarian manner, leading Chahine to dedicate this film to “all Egyptian artists and filmmakers fighting for democracy.”  The second half of the film is less flashy and doesn’t stray too far from a documentary approach, uncompromising in its controversial themes of homosexuality, offering a commentary on the country’s corruption, and an exploration of the successes and failures of his own personal and professional lives, while recreating an actual 1987 strike that took place that included Chahine on the front line.  Gathering at the union hall, beds are scattered around, with Chahine finding himself a spot where he can write, but finds himself engaged with the vehement arguments continually taking place, as they refuse to cave to the government’s demands, going on a rotating hunger strike to prove their point.  But here he’s struck by the fiery facial expressions of an outspoken and impassioned actress and union leader, Nadia, quickly envisioning her as Cleopatra, the famous Egyptian queen.  He speaks to her about Shakespeare, having witnessed the last performance of Hamlet by the great English actor John Gielgud, with his mind wandering to Mark Anthony, while also mentioning Sostratus of Cnidus, the supposed designer of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, a mythical figure that appears again later in the film, as the film questions the essence of being Alexandrian, continuing an experiment with intertextuality, mixing his own autobiography with Alexandrian history, mythology, and an array of western influences.     

We learn that Amr’s career has taken a turn for more lucrative job opportunities, working in commercial films, not really expanding his artistry, selling his soul to mediocrity for the all-important petro-dollar industry, as Yehia describes it, a corrupting influence that becomes a central theme of the film.  As a filmmaker, Yehia wants to leave his own mark of individuality, but also wants to reach out to Western audiences as a way of increasing his audience, which is difficult, as his films primarily play in film festivals, but are overshadowed by larger works that eventually make their way into Western theaters, while he remains a relatively obscure artist virtually unseen in the West.  Chahine had no commercial releases in America until DESTINY (1997), receiving a lifetime achievement award at Cannes that same year, which was followed by a 15-film retrospective a year later, yet he still remains criminally underseen around the world.  Chahine makes extensive use of his earlier film Cairo Station (Bab el Hadid) (1958), seen playing on television in the union offices, again at Nadia’s mother’s house, where she proclaims The Land (al-Ard) (1965) as his best film.  Unlike Amr, Yehia doesn’t try to change Nadia, instead admiring the stirring intensity she brings, imaginarily staging a version of Anthony and Cleopatra, which begins, oddly enough, with the arrival of Anthony on the craggy shoreline rocks, but includes the burning of his fleet, and their last dying breaths.  Much of the brisk dialogue and back and forth between Yehia and Nadia examine an artist’s struggle, as she questions why he hasn’t acted in so many years, characterizing him, “People often think that you are a monster.  But the truth is — you are transparent.”  One of the most unforgettable scenes is an infamous “stick dance” of the director with a handsome yet anonymous man discovered at a street carnival where Yehia offers a brief dance for a swelling crowd, but this man refused to accept a short performance, providing a form of street entertainment, turning it into a longer and more stylishly personal symbol embracing his homosexuality.  Nadia finds it remarkable that he can develop instant chemistry with a complete stranger discovered on the street.  “You worship actors, don’t you?”  In this he reflects the character of Hamlet, who exposes bits and pieces of himself throughout the play.  Yehia tries to do the same with his filmmaking, believing Alexandria is the blueprint for western civilization.  Despite the fractured visual style, mixing memories with fantasy reveries, it’s also a story about cinema itself and the making of a movie, yet it’s the worker’s strike that unleashes an ongoing political debate about democracy and power, where Yehia and Nadia are at the center of the debate, critical of their own strategy, yet often doubting whether they can hold the line against government opposition.  When a victory is declared, people quickly scatter, with Yehia losing track of Nadia, wondering what’s become of her, hoping to offer her a part in an upcoming film, and she does appear in AN EGYPTIAN STORY (1982), again in THE EMIGRANT (1994) and ALEXANDRIA…NEW YORK (2004).  Yet a climactic scene appears at an assembly of the actors guild afterwards, viewed as a political battleground, with Yehia filming it as a documentary, but instead of a tense negotiations of differing views, a truce breaks out, declaring unity, with chants heard of “One voice!  One heart!” echoing Chahine’s desire for democracy, as a unified people are seen overturning a repressive law.  Overall, however, this film conveys a sense of profound loss, accentuating the insurmountable distance that exists between a filmmaker and those actors he so closely works with, yet may also reflect how democratic values and freedom of expression are losing hold in a country in crisis.  While Chahine attempts to resurrect the historical icons associated with the city, the film does serve as a vehicle for the director’s reflections on the foundational myths of the city.