x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Final scene for giant of cinema

Film stars and members of Egypt's ruling party attended the funeral of Youssef Chahine, a director whose controversial and hard-hitting movies redefined film in the Arab world.

The director Youssef Chahine poses at the Cannes Film Festival, where he received a lifetime achievement award in 1997.
The director Youssef Chahine poses at the Cannes Film Festival, where he received a lifetime achievement award in 1997.

In an emotional scene watched by thousands of fans and friends, the aristocracy of the Arab film world paid their last respects to Youssef Chahine, the pioneering filmmaker, at a funeral service in Cairo yesterday.

As his coffin, draped in the Egyptian flag, was carried into the Roman Catholic Church of the Resurrection, mourners including the actress Youssra, who starred in many of Chahine's films, watched sombrely, their dark sunglasses unable to hide the tears filling their eyes. Other stars attending the service included the Egyptian screen legends Nadia Lutfi, Ilham Shahine and Mahmoud Yassin. Outside, a huge crowd gathered for one last glimpse of the man who put Arab cinema on the international stage.

Among the pall bearers was his protégé, Khaled Youssef, who co-directed Chahine's last film Chaos in 2007 and described his mentor as a man who "took Egyptian cinema to the world stage". In a rare show of respect for one of the Middle East's most controversial directors, the stars were joined by officials from the ruling National Democratic Party, which was often harshly criticised in Chahine's films.

The director died in a Cairo hospital on Sunday, aged 82. He had fallen into a coma six weeks earlier. In a career spanning 55 years, he made 50 films and earned a huge following in the Arab world and beyond. Many tributes were paid before the funeral. Mohammed Ali, 38, a director who started working in Chahine's office in 2000, said the filmmaker "influenced not only us who worked with him, but all those who work in the Arab cinema world, starting from the subjects he addresses to the way he handles them to his own political and human views".

Leaving the church for the burial at Chahine's home city of Alexandria, Ali described the director's death as "unbelievable", adding that "he was so much at peace with himself and with his principles, which he never changed and which he reflected in his movies". Chahine redefined Arab cinema with a series of hard-hitting films on everything from politics to religion to sexuality, intermixed with a level of social realism never before seen in the Islamic world.

The president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, whose regime was a frequent target of Chahine's movies, paid his own tribute to the filmmaker, saying in an official statement that "the art of Chahine will live on through his students of artists and producers". The culture minister, Farouk Hosni, described the loss as one of "the greatest to Arabic art, but that he will always be remembered for his great movies".

Chahine was widely respected overseas and he was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997. The French newspaper Liberation devoted two pages to an appreciation of his work, while the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, described him as "a fervent defender of freedom of expression and of individual and collective liberty generally". The director also made the careers of many in the film world, in particular a young man called Omar Sharif who made his first screen appearance in Chahine's 1953 Sira` Fi al-Wadi, or Struggle in the Valley, before becoming a Hollywood superstar in films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

Mona Ghandour, a Lebanese documentary filmmaker now in her 50s, said: "I can't imagine a world without Youssef Chahine. I feel a chapter of my life has been closed." She had known the director for 30 years, taking an apartment above the filmmaker's office in Cairo for the past three years to make 30 short documentaries about Chahine that will be broadcast during Ramadan.

"I've known Chahine for more than half my life," she said. "I feel I know him as much as I know my kids and grandchildren. "For me he was not just a great director, he changed me, my awareness and perception of life, which doesn't happen every day." Rasha Salti, a critic and writer on Arab film, said: "With his death came the end of a unique genre of Arab cinema.

"Chahine's films were never confined to a single trend or pattern, he experimented and pursued his whims producing masterpieces. "He didn't produce mainstream commercial movies, and several of them were even flops. The average Egyptian wouldn't necessarily understand his movies, as they didn't follow a certain formula.

"How many filmmakers these days would dare produce not one but three successful autobiographical films?" she asked, referring to Chahine's first-person production of the semi-autobiographical trilogy about life in Alexandria, where he grew up, that included Alexandria ... Why?, An Egyptian Story and Alexandria Again And Forever. However history records his contribution to the film industry, his death also brought tributes from ordinary fans, many of whom left messages on Chahine's official website with statements such as, "We already miss you ya Jo" and "Farewell Jeo ... Hope your End inspires a generation and a nation as did your life." * With agencies