Thursday, March 02, 2006

Very interesting interview with Youssef Chahine

The interview was published in a German newspaper and was translated into English.
March 02, 2006

Youssef Chahine sits in his office in Cairo surrounded by a clutter covered in dust, chain smoking, exuding glory. He is the old master of Arabic film. But to his fellow Egyptians he is ambiguous (a conflict). A lot of his films are too honest, too autobiographical, too sexual - "Alexandria Why?" or "Destiny". Otherwise he would have been a national icon. He turns 80 years today.

SZ: You express yourself politically not only in your films?

Chahine: They don't like me on television as I refuse to discuss anything unless we are live. Otherwise they only air the parts they like. Even in newspapers they edit all my quotes because I! insult the Minister of the Interior. He is a son of a bitch. I am also not happy with our President. He doesn't like intellectuals.

SZ: You joined the "Kefaya" movement...

Chahine: No, because they don't even have a program. They asked me to join their demonstrations, but I am not stupid. They were 40 protesters surrounded by 3,000 riot policemen with batons and tear gas. This repression is unthinkable. The mafia that is ruling our country is so powerful. They have the police, the intelligence, and the army and when they need it, the U.S. army, on their side.

SZ: Is protest growing?

Chahine: To a certain extent, but it is not enough. We have been living under extraordinary circumstances for 23 years. In the U.S. this is called the "Patriot Act". It is the same crap as here, but we are a developing country so we have more of it. I wanted to make a gift to the University of large batons since when the students demonstrate they are only armed! with their books. I wish we can smack them.

SZ: Are the U.S. and France supporting the opposition movements?

Chahine: No. The U.S. only helps Mr. Mubarak. They are the ones that put him in power. He blackmails them as he tells them it's either me or the Islamists. They therefore prefer him.

SZ: In the beginning you were more drawn to the U.S.

Chahine: I was crazy about American culture. I studied in Pasadena. But there was a rupture as I couldn't take what they were doing anymore. Not only in Iraq, but with me also. In my last film, I wanted to take parts of the musicals of Sinatra to put in my films and they asked me for 2 million dollars. I told them this will be a tribute to american cinema, but they didn't care. They just wanted the money.

SZ: Do you think Egypt will be a freer nation in the near future?

Chahine: Not in the near or distant future. People are too exhausted to demonstrate.

SZ: Don't the youth give you hope?

Chahine: Not because they are young. I see them standing in line in front of the German and French consulates, all of them wanting to emigrate. In the past I used to tell them not to do this as we need them. I was old-fashioned; I could only see the beauty in my country. Now I say leave because here there is no opportunity.

SZ: All your films are autobiographical. How do you see the past?

Chahine: To some extent with some joy. I used to like Nasser. He was sincere. We never used to hear that his children are making business deals. Mubarak's son is infamous for his deals. Corruption is everywhere. If you needed an official stamp on any document, the government employee would open his drawer and say "Oops, I forgot the stamp at home. Come back in three weeks." If you put money in the drawer you get your document stamped straight away. If we really have free elections, the Islamists would win. They are less corrupt, but what would they change for the intellectuals? I don't know their program. They would probably increase censorship, I don't know.

SZ: Would you leave Egypt?

Chahine: In America, people used to tell me to stay at university. I was poor and was offered a job. I would have been close to Hollywood. But there you have the producer, the studio owner, the bank manager ... too many bosses.

SZ: Do you see yourself more independent in Egypt in spite of the censor?

Chahine: Right now yes, because it is hard for them to throw me in jail. The people in power are afraid of the international press so they try to pamper. Mubarak gave me a national award although I had it from Nasser. I told Mubarak I have the award in reverse, where shall I put yours? Here? (Points to his behind).

SZ: An attempted reconciliation.

Chahine: They even offered me the job of minister of Culture, so I told them do you t! hink I am an idiot? I don't want to have anything to do with this mafia. Sometimes it is useless to get into any discussion with the censor. If someone is going to cut up my film I would want to talk with them as this is not right.

SZ: Which directors inspire you?

Chahine: All the good ones. I love Fassbinder's works during his heyday. There have always been great directors in America.

SZ: Is it difficult to find actors?

Chahine: No. I find them in Parliament. When they meet there is great applause. If I need a crowd for an opera scene, I will wait until Parliament is off so that I can get these professional applauders.

SZ: What are you working on now?

Chahine: I am currently working on a film and trying to censor myself. It is a Faustus theme, a comedy, that takes place in hell.

SZ: What does hell look like?

Chahine: More or less like Egypt.


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