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Chahine’s ‘Alexandrie… New York’ , a Personal Look at Arab-American Relations
By Miranda Bechara
Directed by Youssef Chahine
In the fourth chapter of his autobiography, internationally acclaimed Egyptian film director Youssef Chahine, 78, sheds light on his relationship with the United States. His newest film, “Alexandrie…New York,” is about an aging film director who returns to New York after some years, meets his old love, and discovers he had fathered a son with her.
Born into a Christian family in Alexandria, Egypt in 1926, the son of a Syrian lawyer, Chahine attended the prestigious Victoria College. He dreamed of the cinema and theater, watched Hollywood musicals, and in 1946 left to study drama in California. “Sixty years ago, I fell in love with the United States. But things have changed – America has changed,” stated Chahine in his downtown Cairo offices recently. Chahine reminisces about the golden age of American cinema with Busby Berkeley musicals, Fred Astaire, and Frank Sinatra.
“Alexandrie… New York” opens with the Egyptian filmmaker character deciding to travel to the United States despite his unease over its support for Israel. The plot wanders into flashbacks about his education at a Pasadena, California, drama school. He enters into a tender affair with an aspiring actress. They separate but have a fling years later that produces a son. However, the son grows up to be a harsh young man who sees himself as American rather than Arab.
While the flashbacks focus on the dream-like love story between Ginger and Yehia, the current events portray the tension in the relationship between Yehia, the famous director finally being honored in the United States, and his disavowing son Alexander, a father-son tension further exacerbated by the present grim American-Arab political situation.
Chahine’s movies have been always sentimental and filled with handsome young characters in love. Sometimes, he puts fantasy dance numbers in the middle of it all. Carmen, a la Arabian Nights, is Chahine’s fantasy for almost 10 minutes in this movie.
Initially, the movie was called “The Anger” but was later changed to “Alexandrie…New York”; two cosmopolitan cities that are miles apart, yet each captures the essence of civilizations – old and new. The initial movie title also tended to type the film as yet another Arab work criticizing U.S. politics towards the Middle East. In fact, the movie does not delve much into politics – as one might expect – but rather focuses on human relations. It is for the viewer to draw the analogies, if any. As with any autobiographical work, the movie tends to err on the narcissistic side.
“Alexandria...Why?” (1978), “An Egyptian Story” (1982), and “Alexandria Again and Forever” (1989) are Chahine’s other three autobiographical movies, each focusing on a particular social historical context of the filmmaker’s life. Memory is very important to Chahine’s work as is the city of his childhood, Alexandria, during the era between the two world wars: a city tolerant, secular, open to Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Chahine received a lifetime achievement award at the 50th Cannes Film Festival in 1997, where he presented “The Destiny.” Set in 12th century Andalusia, the film is an exuberant historical fresco with profound implications for today as Ibn Rushd (Averroës), the great philosopher, stands in the face of politically driven fanaticism. In 2002, Youssef Chahine was commissioned by the French producer Alain Brigand for the Arab episode of “9/11”; an essay film bringing together 11 filmmakers from 11 countries, each contributing an episode that runs exactly 11 minutes, 9 seconds, and 1 frame reflecting their reactions to the September 11th attacks.
“Alexandrie…New York” – an Egyptian/French co-production – was the closing film of Un Certain Regard in the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. It was also the opening movie for this year’s Arab Film Festival at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. It opened in theaters in Europe and the Middle East this summer and received mixed reviews. In Egypt, it has been one of Chahine’s few movies to perform well at the box office. With more than 40 films, Youssef Chahine remains one of the most prolific and significant independent Arab filmmakers.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 10, no. 48 (Summer 2004)