Love, life and Uncle Joe
Interviewed byYoussef Rakha
On the threshold of the millennium Youssef Chahine, Egypt‘s most out-spoken film-maker, could hardly have remained silent. But the voice in which he communicates his message is even louder this time.
In his unashamedly topical thriller, Al-Aakhar (The Other), the new world order takes on disastrously ominous dimensions as a group of rapacious Egyptian and American businessmen, in inexplicable liaison with religious extremists throughout the world, go about collecting funds to build a religious complex in the Sinai where Christians, Muslims and Jews can coexist in peace — perhaps an oblique reference to Sadat’s unfinished project of the 1980s. Meanwhile a love story has developed between Adam (Hani Salama) — the son of an Egyptian businessman and his American wife, Margret (Nabila Ebeid) — and Hanan (Hanan Tourk), a struggling young journalist intent on exposing the corruption and injustice which besets the system. The businessmen’s undertaking, of course, turns out to be a sham, and the evils of unmoderated privatisation are eventually revealed for what they are, but not until the film reveals its own possible shortcomings.
Unlike Chahine’s last two features, Al-Mohagir (The Emigrant, his biggest box-office success to date) and Al-Masir (Destiny), Al-Aakhar tackles current issues head-on, rather than dressing them in biblical or historical garb. Yet here too the plot is bafflingly elaborate, favouring dramatic intensity over credibility; the characters are nearer abstract types than human individuals; the good and evil camps are too clearly demarcated; and scenes depicting the two young protagonists’ ill-fated love are by turns melodramatic and sentimental. Chahine seems to have been employing the perfect formula for plebeian, if not altogether pedestrian, entertainment. The results are gripping, often amusing morality tales, but they offer neither the aesthetic wholeness nor the intellectual excitement to be expected from modern Arab cinema’s most celebrated agent provocateur.
Despite continuing success worldwide — after receiving Cannes’ prix du cinquantieme in 1997, Chahine chose not to participate in the official competition this year, so as not to compete with younger directors — one wonders whether his seemingly obsessive concern with current political and economic questions, the urge “to live in my time”, is ultimately justified from an artistic perspective.
His disarming charisma aside, the 73-year-old director finds the questions posed by “modernity” not only justified, however, but inevitable: “You tell me is this your business or not. Of course it’s my business. I’m talking about human beings. If you are talking about people who are living with you at the time you are creating some kind of work, then the whole context must be included… All that happens politically and economically influences me socially… psychologically, influences how I make love in bed.
“Basically I’m doing drama, but the drama cannot be detached from reality. And the dosage is very, very difficult. Sometimes there are things that I want to get rid of quickly because I’m scared they might overpower the drama. When I learn more, I will be better at proportions, but I’m still learning and that’s the truth of it. It’s very hard, when you want to make drama, and you have a position that you want to expound. Sometimes maybe I rush into things, the way we’re all rushing into globalisation right now without really understanding what it means. But it’s the drama that makes you sit and watch. You want to know what will happen next, the boy and the girl, the love story…
“Maybe I could have been a little bit more subtle but there is always the fear of not being understood. You mustn’t forget that you have 80 per cent illiteracy. I mean, I love you very much, but still I want to try and talk to more people. You’ll remember when people were saying that Joe is being cryptic and nobody understands him — this was a battle against me. And I don’t want to reach the stage where I don’t find the funds necessary to do my work.
“Cinema is a popular art, and the American school in which I grew up stresses the entertainment value of the work. But to what extent you should be subtle — it depends. I am trying my best. The point is to balance your proportions, so that people will understand where the catastrophe is coming from, and there is no catastrophe that doesn’t have political and economic colour.
“For globalisation to work here certain economic and social conditions must obtain. That we have traditions and conventions going back seven thousand years — and I don’t say this in a jingoistic way — doesn’t mean that we are chauvinistic. Culturally we are different, even physically we are different. And our specificity is what’s delicious about us. So America can’t come and tell me you have to be like me. Rather, it should say that we want to cooperate in a way that lets me retain what’s particularly attractive about me. I mean, I’m all for the businessmen, I’m all for globalisation, but I also want to know how to limit it, how to protect myself.”
Indeed the downside of an increasingly market-oriented society — which Chahine’s own production company, Misr International, has had to confront — gives his (often comic) depiction of brusque businessmen, committed journalists and sincere employees being made redundant an unforeseen autobiographical dimension. Two telling encounters had prompted Chahine to embark on his project. First, he saw a businessman furiously banging the table and roaring, “I pay, therefore I tell you what to do.” Second, one of the many economists he consulted assured him that the country was in mint condition, everything was flourishing and there was nothing to complain about.
“I’ve had a company for thirty years, I give chances to new kids to try out their talents. For 30 years I didn’t need anybody to push me, I kept on going to festivals even though sometimes it was military people, and sometimes what they call officials who were in control, and in either case they didn’t know much about cinema. My company was created for about LE14,000 and it did all this over the years — really a lot of pictures on which people worked. I have a hundred families which this company is supporting, and usually they are picked because they really love cinema, and they would suffer for cinema, give something more.
“Now people talk to me about concessions for people who have LE200 million. I don’t even know how many zeros there are in LE200 million. I said maybe they’re talking about two million. It was insane. And I thought, don’t tell me the country is flourishing. Say that a very small part of the country is being favoured…”
But where is “the other” in all this? Chahine’s methods of tackling difference include a guest appearance by Edward Said which, though dramatically unnecessary, summarises the point of the film in straightforward Arabic, with Said arguing against the them-and-us approach to human civilisation and affirming the value of open cultural exchange. “I think that really Professor Said is extremely important for any Arab. When he appears, this might tempt you to read his works. It’s enough that he agreed to it. He is always in a huge confrontation, and the lines that he says are taken from his texts. And besides he was unbelievably sweet. To give us so much of his time and grace the film with his presence…”
Margret, on the other hand, symbolises the American obsession with absolute (political and economic) control, and it is her blindly selfish possessiveness that perpetuates Adam and Hanan’s death at the end. “When you want your hegemony to be absolute, dramatically that’s as if you want to kill your children. Too much control, too much possessiveness — and you feel like saying, what’s wrong with you people, why be the policemen of the world? I don’t hate Margret. But she’s pathetic. She can’t understand that nobody can control everything in a real democracy, which is what we’re striving for…”
Margret’s involvement with a Christian extremist sect, moreover, shifts the emphasis from Islamic extremism (Al-Masir’s principal topic) to Western religious fanaticism. Even the Fayoum mummy portraits, with which she decorates her house, acquire a sinister aspect. “The sects use even Jesus Christ to propagate their lies, they use the Fayoum portraits. And maybe it’s about time that you talk about non-Islamic extremism. But the most I can do is criticise, I am not a judge.”
But where Margret’s computer becomes an agent of international political conspiracy, encoding people’s private lives in microchips and boding such tragedies as the killing of the protagonist’s Algerian friend by extremists almost as soon as he returns to his country, Adam and Hanan’s love remains “the most important thing in the world”.
“What do I want to know about the other? It’s the ways in which he is different. But rather than being fascist, racist, and hating the difference — I find it intriguing. It’s not just a blind mad love. You are different to me, I’m different to you. But maybe that’s what attracts us to each other. And we should teach people that the difference is something attractive.
“I am very sensual. I hate porn but I like eroticism, and it’s very important for me that you get excited while you watch. Love is the best thing in life, so I want to show love, but without offending people’s sensitivities. And it’s not just the physical gestures but people who care. How can you go on talking about love? How can you liberate yourself from all those dreadful repressions that beset you from the very beginning? That’s what the question is for me…
“I’m always surrounded by young people,” Chahine explains. “The kid who writes the screenplays with me, Khaled Youssef, is not yet 30. But I tell him — you’re getting too old for me now and you must be replaced by someone younger. Because that’s the way to know what’s going on, the real problems. So I’m really trying to live in modernity, in my time.”
And living in his time he certainly has been. Now that he has appropriated current issues so fully, though, the question to be asked is what next?
Al-Ahram Weekly, May 1999