This past year Youssef Chahine passed away, leaving behind him a legacy of film that surprised critics and elevated Egyptian cinema. Youssef Chahine’s films depicted Egypt, and particularly his favorite city of Alexandria, in a way that most westerners had not seen before. Most notable of his works is his autobiographical tetralogy, consisting of Alexandria… Why? (1978), An Egyptian Story (1982), Alexandria, Again & Forever (1990), and Alexandria… New York (2004). These movies tell Chahine’s story as he goes from a young film lover in Alexandria to a successful and accomplished director. This essay will discuss Alexandria… Why? and the director’s use of cinematic elements to enhance the film and tell his story. Firstly, a brief synopsis of the story will be provided. Then, the film’s use of quick cuts will be explored, and the relationship between this method and the high-energy world of Alexandria that the director depicts. Next, we’ll explore the almost surreal character that the conversations have as they flow seamlessly from one person to another. Finally, we will look into a scene that embodies these elements.
Watching Alexandria… Why? for the first time can be a little overwhelming. The film opens with a credit sequence which consists of footage of Alexandria blended with stock footage from World War II. In fact, the use of stock footage is present throughout all of Chahine’s film. The story of the film then begins with the main character, Yehia, racing to see a Hollywood film. This is reminiscent of how he spends the rest of the movie racing to get the schooling necessary to make a film of his own. Throughout the movie, multiple plots weave seamlessly in and out of each other in a very rapid fashion. Soldiers, terrorists, an Egyptian madman, Yehia, Yehia’s family, and many other minor characters all interact with each other throughout the film. A summary of this movie borders on the impossible, but I will state briefly that Yehia, who is the embodiment of the director, puts on a wildly successful play. Bolstered by the success, he puts on a second play which fails miserably. Eventually, after getting a dismal job at a bank, Yehia is accepted into a school in Pasadena but must pull every favor in order to get on the boat to America. The film ends with Yehia making it to America with a promising future. Of course, we the audience know that Yehia, or rather Youssef, has a successful directorial future.
Chahine’s directorial ability is shown with the critical success of his films. His movies have not penetrated the Western market but he has won many awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. Alexandria… Why? is regarded by some as his best work, and by others as unpolished and too busy. The latter perspective is easy to understand. The number of plots occurring simultaneously, as mentioned before, can be overwhelming to someone who is used to more mainstream films. This movie rarely takes a break, constantly demanding the viewers’ attention. There are so few moments of quiet reflection, so few times when some vital piece of the story is not being fleshed out, that in order to understand the film one must keep their eyes on the screen for the entirety of its 133 minute run time. In most Hollywood films of this length there are many slow sequences which allow the audience to digest the plot. This is especially absent when considering Chahine’s use of the quick cut to go from one scene to the next. In a scene to be discussed later, Chahine cuts right from Yehia falling to a flashback without providing the fade-out and fade-in expected. The movie might move from Yehia talking with his family to terrorists discussing their plot without the establishing shots normally shown to indicate a change in location. One could argue that this sort of slow transition would make the film run too long. The intermeshing of his film with shots of war mentioned earlier deserves some further investigation. In Roy Armes’ entry on Youssef Chahine in his book Third World Film Making and the West, he mentions that “intercutting the action with scenes from… 1940s newsreel footage… is as successful as it is audacious.” This is true in several ways. Not only do the shots remind the viewer of the context of the film and the action occurring around Alexandria at the time, they also provide a stark contrast from the everyday activities in the bustling town. This is another example of Chahine using editing not only for time constraints but to showcase the busy world of Alexandria.
Cards and Cabaret
Throughout this movie, discussions flow rapidly and fluidly from one person to another, such as when Yehia’s family is playing cards. Conversations go from his parents to his grandparents, and back to him. The scene changes from his house to the cabaret downstairs almost immediately after it is first mentioned, suggesting a sort of associative style. Helped along by the aforementioned method of quick cuts, scenes blend from one to another with no clear distinction between them. Yehia immediately goes from talking with his sister to dancing with her. Chahine’s methodology makes the entire work like a hallucination at high speed, a series of vignettes held together within the concept of Alexandria. On the first viewing of the film, one might have a hard time realizing that the focus of the story is on Yehia as he struggles to get from Alexandria to Pasadena. This particular element is most clearly discernible in the last minutes of the film as Yehia works to get a Visa and boat ticket in only four days.
A Failed Play
Both Chahine’s editing and the unreal nature of his movie takes a front seat when Yehia gets the princess to watch his second play. His previous play had been a great success, and having had an ambassador in the audience no doubt bolsters his confidence. When given a chance for another play, he finds that he cannot practice in the playhouse and his family has sold his piano. By the time the play comes around, the production is in chaos. Yehia is forced to skip to the final sequence in an effort to make something of his show, unaware that most of the audience has gone. Before the final sequence begins, the quick cutting and free-flowing dialogue shows as Yehia hurries from one place to the next in a vain attempt to make things right. The final sequence itself serves as a respite from the frantic activity of backstage as Yehia participates in a dance. Only Yehia himself seems out of step, constantly behind the other actors. Finally, he collapses, surrounded by strangely dancing shapes, and we suddenly see a young boy. This new scene is provided with no explanation and the viewer is left to figure out this boy is Yehia. This scene is nightmarish as he accidentally burns a figurine of Jesus; he blames his brother, who subsequently falls ill and dies. This sequence is referred to later as he tells his parents that they wanted the older brother to survive and were disappointed when he died instead of Yehia. It seems that Yehia himself has never gotten over this incident.
Youssef Chahine’s use of quick cuts and an odd associative flow can lead one to ponder their purpose. He uses these subtle methods to show the frantic and busy activity in the city of Alexandria, one that he would certainly argue is the true city that never sleeps. Chahine has stated that he first makes movies for himself. In a way, the unreal method of going from scene to scene with no clear distinction between them represents the sometimes wistful way in which we remember things. As Chahine is revisiting his memories, the audience is taken along for the ride, with all of the strange characteristics that go along with the trip. The failed play is a pivotal scene. It is foreshadowed by the utter lack of support Yehia gets from his close confidants and the fact that his family has sold his piano. In a way, the support of the princess only dooms him to an even deeper failure. Minutes after this scene ends, Yehia’s directorial abilities are lauded when he shows a film he has made to friends and family, signifying that he will move on. The failed play is indicative of many of the methods Chahine uses in this film. These methods make the film very intimidating for a first-time viewer and yet very enjoyable during a second or even third viewing. The character of the city and of memories is captured in such a simple way that it really gives the audience something to think about. Chahine went on to make many successful films, and one can see why. This film shows so much promise and works on so many levels that it is a display of the ability of a director who will be missed.
(Header image credit Ronald Woan.)
Of Character and Memory by Steve Richey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
This post was originally submitted for a class on world film.