In my mind Youssef Chahine’s movies are about sweaty careworn heavy-smoking intellectuals in 1970s colors talking very passionately about things I don’t totally understand or relate to in scenes that end abruptly with someone jumping.
Chahine made many movies and a lot of them were about himself, in a way that made it impossible to see any of them outside of his ongoing provocative conversation with his audience.
But I used to really enjoy the movies he made that were not about him or about careworn heavy-smoking intellectuals (though maybe they were the same thing). Mainly because I really liked the way he made things look and feel. It was amazing to see a black-and-white movie by Chahine for the first time: Egyptian black-and-white movies we were allowed to see on TV mostly looked the same and had the same stories, locations and character types.
Chahine’s romantic musical Inta Habeeby (You Are My Love, 1957), for example, despite being similar to mainstream movies of that time in terms of plot or purpose, looked and felt very different. In a TV interview, Chahine once said that its star, Farid al-Atrash, insisted that his face be lit in a specific way that made it look more square, but that he refused and shot the movie his way. The film came out nice and entertaining, and Farid — the squarest singer and actor in the history of Arab cinema — came out funny and charming for the first and possibly last time.
In 1958, one year later, Chahine made Bab al-Hadid (Cairo Station), a huge surprise to almost everybody. His previous movies were very box-office friendly, movies about people fighting in the docks, the valley or the desert, movies that disturbed nobody and didn’t cause any trouble. Maybe he alone knew during the shooting of Cairo Station that his career was about to undergo a massive transformation.
It’s quite a safe movie. It made it onto Egyptian national TV as an entertaining noir psycho-thriller. The final scene is carved into the memories of millions as a classic cinema moment. Yet throughout the film’s multi-layered body you feel a suppressed steaming power boiling inside, looking for a crack to explode out of. Just like Qinawy — the immigrant from the south who lives the predatory chaotic jungle of Cairo Station.
No wonder Chahine himself wanted to play that role: a limping wreck of a newspaper seller described by his only sympathizer as “a person made ill by deprivation,” a creep the world pities and despises, a pair of staring eyes full of desire and magical dreams, and a stuttering mouth incapable of normal boring conversation.
Chahine, unlike many stars at the time, wasn’t worried about playing such a role (created by scriptwriters Abdel Hay Adib and Mohamed Abu Youssef, but probably developed by himself). A lot of actors wouldn’t want roles that present them as repulsive — playing a villain is fine because people respect fear, but nobody wants an audience to remember them as “ill from deprivation” or offensive. Chahine didn’t mind being the guy who only desires Hanouma (Hend Rostrum), rather than the guy who kisses her.
When you watch Chahine’s 1970s movies about careworn heavy smokers in which people suddenly jump, you have to admire how he was able to make movies about whatever he wanted, the way he wanted. It’s quite amazing that in a country where the industry is troubled and the political and social situation is rather tight, Chahine earned that much freedom. Movies like Cairo Station show that it took him a while to earn it. I don’t want to believe in the idea that more limitations bring more creativity, but I do tend to like his movies that were made (I believe) under more pressure.
Cairo Station is shot entirely in the station, in 1958. If you know Cairo’s present-day train station, you can imagine what it was like back then — exactly the same. The movie’s events all happen in one day. A large flock of actors and actresses float around the place in cleverly choreographed routes (Chahine’s love of dancing, which later emerged more strongly, appears shyly here).
Alvise Orfanelli, the Italian-Alexandrian filmmaker who introduced Chahine to the cinema scene, is the director of photography. Orfanelli literally established the aesthetics of early Egyptian cinema through his work as director and/or cinematographer on lots of movies made in the early 1930s. In Cairo Station, he seemed to have fallen in love with the darkness of the gigantic metal beasts that scream off and squeak past people, blowing them around, abstract triangular shapes of smoke and mist hanging behind the characters and creating a constant spooky, epic atmosphere.
Combined with Fouad al-Zahiri’s biblical-sounding music, this gives the station the feel of a mythical shrine where pilgrimage-like visits occur repeatedly before magnificent acts of bloody sacrifice and sinful confession.
The movie deliberately drifts off its rails and slows down near the areas where Chahine loves to hang out. A group of speechless young adults in a train carriage play merry western rock n roll on guitars and accordions, and Hanouma joins them with a slowly progressing dance as she tries to sell them Pepsi. This moment of joy and beauty, which of course later turns into an important beat of the plot, is a seed for what later becomes a sort of Chahine signature.
Cairo Station also introduces his political agenda in a slightly louder voice than previous works. Abu Sery, the station’s alpha male who makes a living from carrying baggage, is trying to convince the other carriers to unite under a union to protect their interests. A few years after the 1952 revolution, amid raise-your-head-brother discourse, Chahine cared about making a movie that would remind people that there was still injustice and work to do about it.
Abu Sery is also loved by the sexiest woman on earth and he is very large. When they have angry make-up sex after a fight, spied on by Qinawy, we see a shot of metal railway bars repeatedly sinking into the ground under the heavy weight of a train. This scene helped slowly pave the way for a conversation exploring gender issues in Egyptian society in Chahine’s later works.
Cairo Station, the eleventh of his 43 movies, was nominated to represent Egypt in Berlin Film Festival and the Academy Awards. He made it when he was 32 and the same year he made Gamila al-Gazairiya (Gamila the Algerian), another important movie about the famous freedom fighter Gamila Bohraid, who had a crucial role in Algeria’s struggle against French colonization. Gamila also had a remarkable international reception, as relived in Chahine’s Hadouta Masriya (An Egyptian Tale, 1982).
(Before writing the next paragraph I made lots of phonecalls and looked at many websites to get a couple of facts straight but failed due to the extremely confusing nature of Youssef Chahine’s movies. I’m just going to write it, otherwise I’ll miss my deadline.)
In one of his biographical movies, probably Iskandriya Kaman w Kaman (Alexandria, Again and Forever, 1989) there is a scene where he — as himself — is talking to an older lady. She somehow embodies the poor simple people of Egypt (a character who regularly appears in Chahine’s movies in different shapes and figures). As she offers him a cup of tea, she says, “The Land is your best movie.” Chahine stares at her with his famous, inexplicable, not always necessary naughty look, and asks: “How about Cairo Station?” She walks away and mumbles something about it being good but not as good as Al-Ard (The Land, 1969).
I see this scene as a stage for an important discussion about Chahine’s work and how I feel about it: The conversation about those two particular movies, which both reached out to ordinary viewers and created a very special channel between them and Chahine, shows a very sharp recognition of that channel; yet this conversation is in a movie he made about himself in which he provocatively asks an old lady about Cairo Station, which he thinks she would like, and the old lady, who is not real, responds with her opinion to Chahine, who is real, in a scene that can’t be described as either real or unreal.