"We have to walk to meet the others"
Youssef Chahine has been the catalyst of several controversies throughout his career. Controversies that identify him as one of the rare Arabic directors that has dared to go beyond the limits, in a world that shuts itself up to any kind of dissidence. A controversial spirit attached to a huge desire of opening towards the rest has always been present in its films. Films as Djamilah in 1958, which tracks the life of the Algerian resistant Djamilah Bou Hrid and that was not very appreciated in the western world and especially in France. Then his collaboration during the 80’s with France that co-produced all his films since and that was seen by several as a sell out, especially after the film ‘Farewell Bonaparte’ that throws a softer look on the campaign in Egypt. Or again his positioning in the 90s together with other artists while starting a hunger strike against a law that limited the freedom of speech.
These are these pictures that jostled in my head while taking the elevator of the building of Champollion street to meet ‘El Ostaz’ (the master) as his assistants call him. After a brief wait in the office of his producer Marianne Khoury, who explains that the master has to meet me before to deciding on the interview. This was « routine » given his state of health and his loaded agenda. I wonder whether this is not a strategy developed after the years of relationship and not necessarily always soft with the press, when finally I am invited to enter into the office.
In a vast air-conditioned office, lit up essentially by the rays of the sun of the month of June, Youssef Chahine is sat behind a big white office, the DVD of the Goodbye Lenin to its sides. I present myself while trying to be as kind as possible, he examines me with a surprised air and we look at each other during some seconds. I am still standing and I ask myself if he has already had time to judge me and to decide whether our meeting will take place. I start to think hurriedly, is it my yellow Gap shirt, or can it be my Dyptique perfume, or worse still does he recall his days in the American University 15 years ago when during a course on his films we disagreed on the Nasser period? not very probable… before finding a response to all of these questions, Marianne comes to my relief inviting me to sit down and while repeating exactly what I said, but raising her voice leaning towards the ear of the master. What a relief, the master is hard of hearing.
After having asked me if I wanted something to drink, he looks at me and asks ‘who are you? tell me’. I concentrate and explain calmly, but aloud, which is not always that easy, who I am and my link to the project Euromedcafe while trying to present all the positive elements of the project.
He listens to me attentively and after some seconds in silence, he tells me that he will see me the next day at the same time.
The next day, I arrive on time with several plans, but not having yet decided about the choice of one. The master waits for me in the office and we descend to another apartment, rather a working and writing place.
He lights a cigarette as to challenge those who say that to smoke kills. All my questions get confused while I prepare my new digital dictaphone to be ready in the fatal moment. I finish my manipulation to realize that he has followed my operation patiently. I raise my eyes and see the poster of his last film, ‘Alexandria, New York’ and I ask him all while looking at the poster ‘living between two cultures, is it as to love two women at the same time, is it possible and if possible how is it reconcilable ? ’.
I stare at him in an almost terrified look, I was waiting for a violent reaction rather to an unconventional question. But to my surprise, he starts to answer quite naturally.
‘The question is not to love two women, but the relationship with the other one’ he pulls on his cigarette, ‘how to get to know the other, his culture, his thought and desires, his weaknesses. Young people of today want to make cinema, but cinema is to speak to different people, different universes, and to speak to them it is necessary to get to know them. He pulls again on his cigarette ‘it is necessary to take a step towards the other and this is only possible if one knows well the subject in question. Today there are more opportunities to learn, and more possibilities of opening, thanks to the internet. A young person today can attain piles of information and knowledge through the Internet, newspapers, films that facilitate his means to of getting to know the other and to get closer to him’. ‘There is accessibility to a huge number of persons and allows them to learn about so very technical subjects’. ‘These new technologies have also changed the access to the initiation to film making’. ‘It is easier for young people to initiate on film making with a digital camera .
I ask ‘But to know the other also requires knowledge about oneself’.
‘These two elements go side by side, its the tentative that is important. When one takes a step towards oneself, towards his culture and his inheritance one is curious, one wants to know, and one is necessarily interested to know the other and what he represents’. ‘It is especially necessary not to shut oneself up, this is the risk today. One tends to believe that to know about one’s own culture consists on sticking to it and refuse the rest. It is of the causes of the majority of our problems today’.
He lights another cigarette and continues ‘the situation today is complicated, with economical and social problems that get worse and that do not leave a lot hope for the future and for the youth. The society shuts itself up more and more and this does not facilitate the contact with the other or the opening to other cultures. Alexandria in the years 30, 40 and 50, was a true cosmopolitan city. There were citizens of the whole Mediterranean basin. Italian, Greek, French etc… One spoke 3 or 4 languages and the city was in constant movement. A true exchange and a real cooperation was part of our daily life and the Other was not a mystery. Today things have changed a lot and the road that we have to travel seems to be longer and harder”.
He puts out his cigarette and looks at me with a small smile and asks ‘is it ok? ’. I switch off my dictaphone and answer back with a smile, ‘yes, it’s ok”.
Ahmed El Attar