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Three Films from the Middle East

Ray Privett

It seems almost banal to say that the late 1990s constitute a crucial moment in relations between the United States and the Islamic countries of the Middle East, because that had probably been true at least for every moment of the preceding fifty years.  But recently in film culture, and occasionally in the print media, there have appeared a few scattered signs that we might truly have been turning a corner, at least in the cultural sphere.  Films from Iranian directors Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Dariush Mehrjui and Majid Majidi have begun to receive substantial critical acclaim and distribution across North America beginning in the mid-90s.  During the summer of 1998, President Clinton appeared at an Arab-American Society meeting that was broadcast on the cable news station CNN, speaking about friendships with Arab-Americans he has cherished since childhood.  Just as the New York Film Festival was beginning that fall, ads sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government appeared in influential newspapers and magazines including the New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly encouraging cultural exchanges between Islamic countries and the United States.  Within the same pages appeared articles on Iranian President Khatami, who, during his visit to the United Nations in New York City, encouraged similar exchanges.  The festival’s presentation of the film The Apple, directed by Mohsen’s 18-year-old daughter Samira Makhmalbaf, introduced an eloquent new voice to this forum, while a retrospective of fourteen films from veteran Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, among them the historical fiction films Saladin and Destiny, provided a deep historical background.


The Apple

A pen moves across a piece of parchment, writing a letter addressed to social services.  We learn about a couple who has kept their two daughters locked inside the house for eleven years, only allowing occasional forays into the courtyard between the house and the gate.  The children, when glimpsed, appear retarded.  The neighbors are worried, and are trying to provoke the government to intervene, perhaps to take the children away, before it is too late.  Names are signed, and thumbprints dot the parchment.  A few more lines give credits for the film, including “directed by Samira Makhmalbaf” and “written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf.” An apple is placed on the parchment.

After the opening credits of The Apple, video stock shows a reporter investigating the children, first taking them away, and then returning them after an agreement is reached that the children will no longer be locked inside.  We meet the father, an old religious man who prays for people, and the mother, a blind and obese woman, who hides inside the house behind a massive chador covering her entire upper body.  The two girls, who look very androgynous, indeed do seem to be retarded.  Back in a more standard film stock we follow the developments among the family.

One day the man goes out for bread and leaves the girls locked inside for a short time.  The social worker comes by at just that point.  She brushes the children out of the gate, encouraging them to go meet other children and play.  When the father returns she locks him with the mother inside the barred house, keeping the key for herself.

Totally lacking social familiarities, the children appear quite foolish playing out in the streets.  A neighbor boy offers them some ice cream, and one of the girls pays for a bar with a coin she has somehow picked up, while the other runs off with a bunch of bars for which she has not paid.

The boy returns with an elder to try to make her pay.  A neighbor calls down for them to leave the girl and her sister alone – don’t you know they’ve been locked inside for eleven years? She throws down some money.  The boy, shocked, gives them more ice cream.  While the girls are still out walking, another neighbor boy bobs an apple on a string down in front of them, but they are unable to grasp a hold of it.  He comes down and joins them in their walk, still dangling the apple before them, leading them toward a fruit stand.  The girls try to take some apples from there, but they learn that they need some money, so they return to their father who gives them some.  They buy some apples, and then they make friends with two more smartly dressed girls who encourage them to buy a watch.

Back at the house, the social worker brings a saw to the father, telling him he will not get out unless he gets himself out, permanently severing the bars that have been keeping the girls locked inside with their mother.  One time when the girls return, as the father begs the social worker to let him out, the social worker gives the girls the key, insisting that if they can open the doors themselves, then he will be allowed to return to the world.  After struggling for some time, the girls open the lock, and the father comes forth.  Later, alone, the mother emerges, her inner dialogue murmuring on the soundtrack.  The boy across the street is again dangling his apple on a string, and it brushes against her.  A hand emerges from under her chador, reaching for then finally grasping the apple in a freeze-frame that ends the film.

Within the context of cultural exchange between the United States and Iran, especially with film festivals and the Makhmalbaf family playing such a significant role recently, the film appears as a very tender commentary on this process.  The father seems to stand for the traditional men who are keeping their cultural boundaries firmly in place and forcing women to hide behind the bars and away from the light of the world.  And yet these  men do have their reasons.  In a world where people seem surrounded on all sides by foreign things like ice cream bars and watches which you use a suspicious thing called money to gain possession of, doesn’t it make sense for the men to be very protective of their families? That one of the items passed back and forth is an apple especially suggests the relations between Oriental states and Western states, since, in Judaic-Christian-Islamic mythology, the apple is the item associated with the power which the serpent brings to Adam in the garden of Eden, and, in Islamic-Western relations, various countries are regularly characterized as varieties of Satan who dangle their power and products before others.  And, since this boy who dangles the apple leads the girls to other products associated with the West, he appears like the serpent who gives apples to Eve, especially in  leading the girls to the Western-style market.

Within the context of the particulars of the Makhmalbaf family and international film culture more generally, the film also appears as a subtle commentary on gender politics and intergenerational conflict.  I don’t know what life is like between Samira and Mohsen and the rest of their family, but her appearance as the eminent representative of Iranian cinema at festivals such as Cannes and New York, even though her father and other established directors have new films, certainly resonates with the chadored woman’s grasping of the apple, suggesting a feminist intervention into the institutions of cinema, in which women seize power of something associated with men.  At least from the United States, it appears that in Iran film culture and the cultural sphere in general are dominated by men (though I suspect Iranians might say the same thing about the United States), who, like the father, have the power to explore the market and regulate what products his family will receive.  They have the freedom to choose whether to take up such things as cinema, while the women generally remain hidden behind veils and inside houses.  With The Apple, an Iranian woman director emerges, perhaps from the household of a father who has kept her confined.  In order for men to continue with their own freedom in making films, the film suggests in this context that like the girls sawing through bars and the woman grasping the apple, Iranian women must break through the gates that have kept them locked away, and seize the power of modern tools like cinema, in spite of their dangerous associations.

Within contemporary critical practice, both interpretations are certainly appropriate.  However, to cue these interpretations may never have entered the filmmakers’ minds until the middle of shooting or even during editing.  At the festival, Ms. Makhmalbaf told a press conference crowd that the film was a true story; not only was it true, it unfolded and was shaped by the filmmaking process.  She had seen the video clip on television and had asked her father to lend her the equipment and film stock necessary to make a short film about it.  She found the family and the social worker and inquired whether she could make a film about what was happening.  The father, at first speaking for the entire family, consented, as did the social worker.  Thus the solutions to the family’s problems were worked out in front of the film crew, sometimes even with the film crew, as the short film lengthened into a feature.  During the evening, Mohsen and Samira –  who, from what she said in English and occasionally through a Persian translator, seem to have a very warm and open relationship, with him encouraging her to make films since she was very young –  would meet to discuss how things were going and how they might try to join their “actors” in solving problems the next day.  It was, in fact, Ms. Makhmalbaf’s idea to give the father a saw.  Had they never intervened, the social worker later told her, the children would simply have been taken away, and the father and mother would have been left to themselves. 

It is unlikely this knowledge will be available to most people who see this film, since personal contact and exchange with the maker about her personal intentions is stripped in the distribution of mass-produced products, whether they are watches, ice cream bars, or films.  Probably most audiences, wherever they are, will interpret the film as I discussed above, or remark on the film’s style, whose elemental simplicity and elegance resembles that of the films we have recently seen directed by Mr. Kiarostami and Mr. Makhmalbaf.  In any case The Apple is a very timely, deceptively simple work of great beauty and compassion.  It is an example of what art can do at its best: help us understand where other people are coming from, and help us solve problems, whatever they are and whoever we are, whether the distance between us is a piece of cloth, a gate, a wall, a religion, a language, thousands of miles, or more.


Chahine

Saladin

A group of Muslim pilgrims are praying in the desert near Jerusalem.  Horses are heard approaching.  One of the pilgrims turns to look.  He screams, and is slashed in the face.  He falls, bloody.  Music swells.  Swords.  Pilgrims’ faces bloodied by what obviously is not blood but paint.  Grinning French soldiers holding aloft stolen jewels.  Horses legs.  Swirling whiteness, the drip of red on white, fields of red, white, and black.

Youssef Chahine is truly a philosopher of the cut.  Born and raised in the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, Egypt, coming to age near the end of World War II, soon after which he traveled to study in an art school in the United States, then returning to become Egypt’s most famous and most controversial filmmaker, Chahine has from his earliest days lived among people of an enormous range of religious, ethnic, and ideological backgrounds, and in many films he has directed he uses bold editing to pointedly juxtapose those backgrounds while making some sort of intellectual point.  Among the films in the retrospective, experimentation with the editing patterns that would later be used for these ends was evident in Dark Waters, an early musical, though it was not used to bring together people of differing backgrounds.  As a vase is about to be smashed over a character’s head, Chahine cuts to the image and sound of fireworks exploding in the sky as part of a celebration outside.  He then cuts back to the character whose head has been hit lying unconscious on the ground.  The sound of the fireworks thus stands in for the sound of the smashing vase, and its image suggests the character’s sensory experience as he passes out.  Other such montage sequences, that do juxtapose different ethnic backgrounds in what might be called “interethnic intellectual montage” sequences, were evident in the retrospective in films he directed from the mid-60s through the 70s, 80s, and 90s in such films as The Land, The Sparrow, and the “Alexandria Trilogy.”  Of these the technique is used to greatest effect in Saladin, a masterpiece from the mid-1960s which Chahine took over early on after director Ezzeldine Zulfiqar took ill, the film that includes the sequence described above. 

Crusading Europeans occupy Jerusalem, but they are running low on resources.  Young Issa is led by his father to enlist with the forces of Saladin, the great leader who has united the Arabs.  Against the wishes of the new Christian King of Jerusalem, who speaks with a burr, and who had promised them protection, the French commander Reynaud orders a slaughter of the Muslim pilgrims.  Saladin rallies his troops to prevent any further incursion on Arab land or slaughter of innocents.  One night while out on patrol, Issa comes across Louise, a woman officer in Reynaud’s army, who pierces him with an arrow and vows they will meet again, which they do briefly in battle and again later when Issa is taken ill behind enemy lines and she tends to him, having given up the battlefield to become a nurse.  In England, King Richard the Lion-hearted is told that Christian pilgrims are being harassed, and he joins forces with the French and other Europeans, leading a fleet of ships toward the Holy Land, penetrating a port city through one of Saladin’s soldiers who conspires with the French Queen Virginia.  Saladin greets Richard with great respect, saying he regrets not being able to welcome him as a friend.

There are battles and truces, and more battles.  Territory changes hands.  Saladin invites Richard to Jerusalem for Christmas, but Richard is shot by an Arab arrow as he enters the walled city.  Later, as anti-Arab slogans are shouted out in the Europeans’ camp, Saladin sneaks to Richard’s tent and heals him as a sign of good faith, which he hopes will indicate that he had not ordered the arrow.  Richard discovers he has been betrayed.  As he has a vision of Christmas snow and hears the European Christian hymn “O Come All Ye Faithful” sung in harmony with an Islamic prayer over Jerusalem, Richard declares peace with Saladin.  After a great parade, Saladin expresses his hope that Richard will soon return as a pilgrim.  Louise stays behind, having fallen in love with Issa.

Chahine uses interethnic intellectual montage impetuously, even in expository scenes.  As the European leaders look out from their ships as they approach Jerusalem, Chahine cuts between two leaders privately declaring their reasons for being there.  Virginia, the French Queen, is there for splendor and riches: “the treasures of the East, the kingdom of Jerusalem.” Richard the Lion-hearted, who Chahine audaciously makes a more central and more fascinating character than Saladin himself, is there for peace and religion: “the city of the olive groves, through which walked Christ, our Savior.” The sequence thus points out that there are numerous reasons why Europeans come to the Orient.  Later, when some of Richard’s soldiers are slaughtered by the French, and their faces are marked with a cross of blood, Chahine cuts to a hand which assumedly is that of one of the French soldiers marking itself with the stain.  But as the camera draws back this is revealed to be Richard’s own hand.  This suggests the confusion and betrayal underway. 

Bolder intellectual montage enlivens battle scenes.  When I met with him during the retrospective, Chahine described his method for the scene of the slaughter of Muslim pilgrims by the French soldiers – “the Christian bastards,” as Chahine described them, leaning forward, locking me in his gaze, and telling me his riddle, “of which I am one.” Because it was one of the first scenes in the film, which was widely understood as an allegory for contemporary events around Jerusalem, Chahine felt he had to make it powerful enough to engage the audience.  But he did not want these audiences, who he presumed would include, among others, both Muslims and Christians, to be so outraged that fighting would erupt in the theater.  So he made the scene rather abstract.  In this sequence of about forty rapidly cut together shots, only a handful directly depict acts of violence.  Even these are rather oblique and anti-mimetic.  In one shot you can see an actor burst a blood pack as a spear crushes against him.  A few other shots show people looking directly into the camera, bloodied by what quite obviously is paint.  Through the sequence shots are oblique, one-dimensional and shallow, contrasting sharply with the ornate, deep space, tightly packed, crescent-shaped compositions that dominate the film.  The longest lasting of these, Chahine told me, he created by taking a large, spiral disk, covering it with a white cloth, and, as the camera recorded from above above, spinning it around.  Sometimes he dumped red paint or placed people representing dead bodies on the disk, people who spun by the camera as the disk turned.  As the powerful music swells to a climax, Chahine took the compositions and editing into total abstraction, cutting back and forth between fields of red, white, and black cloth.  When I saw the film, the sequence powerfully conveyed the sense of a massive slaughter, yet was so audacious and entrancing that I could not look away until the last shot faded.

Both camps know there will be more battles, and both begin to prepare.  As always, Chahine makes connections between adversaries.  Saladin stares out in the desert at night, strategizing out loud to an elder advisor.  He stretches his arms wide and makes a slow, enveloping gesture with his hands and arms, saying of Reynaud “We must use his vanity to lure him out into the open ...” As the clause ends, Chahine cuts to a shot of Reynaud inside his tent, continuing the gesture as his hands reach across a model landscape.  He finishes the sentence, demonstrating his converse plan of sending his troops to swarm across Saladin’s army, saying, “Therefore, we’ll be able to kill him.” The similarities of gesture and dialogue continued through the cut suggest the similarity of the men’s militaristic goals, while the differences suggest the differences in their backgrounds and methods.  Saladin is a local man, and his strategy depends on his intricate knowledge of the land.  Reynaud represents an alien force, and his strategy depends on his modeled, perhaps idealistic, image of the land.

These military models anticipate subsequent battle scenes, including subsequent interethnic intellectual montage.  Reynaud’s troops attack in massive sweeping charges, which Saladin’s troops resist by lighting fires and setting spikes in the ground.  In a later battle, after the reinforcements led by Richard have arrived from Europe, Chahine cuts from images of the European troops in their different colored armor slicing their way through Saladin’s troops to a verbal image of waves crashing against rocks.  The waves and the Europeans are likened abstractly through editing and movement within the frame, and associatively because they had arrived on ships moving through water.  The stationary Arabs, on the other hand, have been associated with the land and consequently with the rocks.  Again Chahine cuts away from photographic representation of people as the tempo and violence swell, injecting stilled frames and even what appear to be rough paintings of the scene.  The sequence thus suggests the historical significance of the Europeans’ movement into the Holy Land, temporally likening it to a process as unending as the crash of waves, and as significant as a historical painting.  Again the sequences are somewhat abstract, perhaps to entrance members of the audience so they will not attack each other.  At the Walter Reade theater, spectators watching this print subtitled in the French language called out, astonished, but there were no fights.

The boldest of Saladin’s interethnic intellectual montage sequences confounds European / Arab, Christian / Muslim, and male / female dichotomies.  Louise has been discovered assisting the Arab Christian Issa.  Saladin discovers the Arab who had betrayed the port to the French Queen Virginia.  Chahine intercuts their trials for treason before their respective courts, with visual similarities and lines of dialogue bridging the cuts.  Suddenly, lights begin to fade out in the background of the courts.  Then, in the ultra-wide ‘Scope frame, Chahine shows the two courts side by side in a contiguous space.  Lights begin to come back up, and Richard reveals he knows he, too, has been betrayed by the French.  He knows his peers have come to Jerusalem, the city whose name echoes through Saladin much like the word “effendi” (land owner) echoes through The Land, not for religion or peace but out of greed.  Richard casts the treacherous French king out of his court and absolves Louise of any crime.  Saladin casts out the man who had betrayed his troops in hopes of money from the French. 

The exiles, the outsiders, and the virtuous, those who are thoroughly, painfully committed to God and man – these are Chahine’s champions, whatever their backgrounds.  As kinetic as M, as muscular as  Alexander Nevsky, as compassionate as Chimes at Midnight, and as timely as Bulworth, Saladin is one of the greatest films I have ever seen.  It’s a tremendously useful film for North Americans to see, educating us historically about the diverse complexity of Middle Eastern culture and relations with people from Europe and beyond.  Leaving the theater after the afternoon showing of the film, I saw long lines waiting for the next showing, putting the lie to what many prominent American film critics say about American filmgoers not being adventurous and wanting to see fascinating films and discover things in our filmgoing.

Destiny

Destiny, the most recent feature Chahine has directed, which had played the New York Film Festival the year before, returned to close the retrospective with a theatrical run staggered through two weeks.  It was the only film in the program reviewed by New York’s most influential newspapers.  The first night I came, the theater manager told me the film had been playing to half full-houses, which matched how many where there that evening.  The second time, a late afternoon on the final day of the festival, the theater was sold out.

The first evening began with a technical error during the opening credits.  After the lights went up as the error was fixed, I looked around at the audience.  Arab peoples seemed to be in the majority.  Almost everyone was exceptionally well-dressed, so I felt somewhat out of place in my jeans and light fleece coat.  Most people were speaking languages I did not understand, but which I recognized as including Arabic, Hebrew, and Spanish.  There was a family behind me speaking a hybrid of Arabic and English.  They seemed quite friendly, so I turned and asked if they had seen many of the films in the festival.  No, the father said, this was the first one.  But they were very excited to see Destiny because they had seen advertisements for it and stories about it on an Egyptian television station they received via satellite, and also because a friend of the family had worked on the film.  The lights went down again and the credits rolled again, this time more clearly, and sure enough when one of the names came up on the screen the man said the name aloud and everyone in the family gave a little cheer.

During the Inquisition in Languedoc, a region that loosely corresponds to southern France of today, a man is tortured then burned at the stake for translating the work of Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, an Arab philosopher from Andalusia, a region of Spain where Islam and Arab culture flourished during the Middle Ages.  With the charring of his father’s flesh burnt into his memory, the translator’s son Joseph heads off to Andalusia to find Averroes for himself.  The philosopher and his clan take him in, fondly joking about Joseph’s blue eyes.  Joseph saves Averroes’ writings from a house where they would have been burned, and instigates a project of copying the philosopher’s texts and distributing them to library archives.  He himself travels to France, losing all but one of the books in a river on his way there.  But when he opens this one book before a French archivist, Joseph discovers it is smudged and illegible.  He returns to Andalusia.  Meanwhile, Nasser, one of the Andalusian Caliph Mansur’s sons who are very close with Averroes, has traveled across water and sand to deposit the philosopher’s texts in an archive in Egypt.  As he returns, an agent of Sheik Riad offers Nasser his father’s thrown and much wealth as long as Nasser agrees to the plans for economic exploitation offered by representatives of the Inquisition to the north.  Nasser rejects the offer.  He informs his father of the plot, and together they force Sheik Riad to go to the front of the battle against the same representatives of the Inquisition with which he is colluding.  As the book burning begins, Averroes learns that his work is safe, then taunts the soldiers in front of the fire.

Spliced into the main plot about the preservation of knowledge is an extensive anatomy of the social power of art’s many forms.  Averroes begins the film as close council to the Caliph, but under the influence of fundamentalists led by the land-owner sensitive Sheik Riad and an Emir who physically resemble each other, the Caliph vainly betrays Averroes’ trust in hopes of gaining more power.  At least in part because he sees how seriously his father takes the fundamentalists, the Caliph’s other son Abdullah abandons his friends in Averroes’ court and is taken in by the fundamentalists, who try to purge Abdullah of his interest in gypsy women and gypsy dancing and indoctrinate him into fundamentalism.  They also train him to kill his father.  He is recaptured by Marwan, a singer in Averroes’ court, and discovers love of life and art once again.  Marwan, who leads several glorious musical numbers with a song about finding your way through difficulty and being able to dance again, is once referred to as a philosopher, and his being stabbed in the throat and ultimately killed by the fundamentalists is a striking symbolic gesture of violence against art.  Yet his song lives on, and is sung by Averroes and his court during Abdullah and Nasser’s reconciliation.

As in all of the films has directed that I have seen, women characters are powerful and magnificent.  Manuela, a gypsy woman who is a great dancer and spirit of life, is recognized as a woman of great knowledge – “she can swear in five languages!” The wisdom of Zeinab, Averroes’ wife who keeps the house, is similarly recognized, and she provides the clinching vote at an important moment.  Much of the celebration and reconciliation take place in Averroes and Zeinab’s court, one of the open public spaces where people of different backgrounds can come together and celebrate life and art, such spaces as one recurrently finds throughout Chahine’s oeuvre and whose earliest antecedents seem to be Alexandria of Chahine’s youth and the California art school where he studied.

Chahine’s style is vibrant, robust and referential as always, with lateral tracks behind pillars at the beginning of a musical number recalling those in Alexandria ...  Why? and other musicals, and deep-space, tightly packed, crescent-shaped compositions as in Saladin.  Destiny in fact seems something of a sequel to that film, with some of the Caliph’s men even calling their master Saladin’s heir.  During several of the musical numbers in Averroes’ court, as in Saladin, stylistic gestures directly address spectators.  But rather than abstract representations of violence entrancing spectators, instead hands point directly at the camera, and thus out at us in the movie theatre, encouraging us to join Averroes and his court in the struggle to celebrate life and art.  Moreover, as Chahine certainly is aware, Saladin and Averroes are two of the three Muslims Dante Alighieri places in limbo in the great Christian epic, The Divine Comedy. 

Yet Chahine is notably spare with his signature intellectual montage.  The only such sequence I noticed comes at the beginning of the film, as Joseph’s father waits, tied to the stake, for the Christian minister’s final verdict.  Chahine cuts between figures of Saints carved in stone on a church and the living faces of Joseph and the others who have gathered.  He then cuts to the stone image of a minister raising his hand in benediction, and a dissolve links this figure with the minister at the fire, who lowers his arm to signal its lighting.  Slicing through space and time, the sequence indicts the murderous collusion of men of words and men of property in abusing lower-class people, such people as are often the main characters in films Chahine directs.

Though set in Andalusia of the Middle Ages, like many of the films he has written and directed, Destiny has definite autobiographical resonance for Chahine, and is also a subtle commentary on contemporary events in the Middle East and elsewhere.  In Destiny, Averroes is a clear stand-in for Chahine, who had some recent run-ins with fundamentalists over The Emigrant¸ the previous film he directed, with his eclectic and profound knowledge of art and culture from all across the world, and his hosting of a court of people from across social divides, as Chahine seems to in his own multiethnic home and film company and school.  His lectures to these people, whether in audiences or as individuals, resemble those that Chahine gave to audiences and individuals when he was present at the festival, and one of their lines describes well what Chahine attempts to do with his films:  “You write books to incite people, to rouse them, to make them think.”  One of the lines in the film, “Ideas have wings, no one can stop their flight,” reappears on the screen at the end of the film, and is followed by Chahine’s own signature.  During the film the line is spoken not by Averroes but Abu Yehia, a character who is something of a mirror image of the main character, a type of figure who has recurred at least since the late 60s in films directed by Chahine also including The Choice and the Alexandria trilogy, and whose emergence seems to correspond to a splitting of Chahine’s own personality after the profound splits in the Middle East in that era.  The signature reminds us that Chahine makes films in order to address contemporary issues, including political corruption and censorship.

The brilliance of Chahine’s choice of Averroes as his avatar reaches quite deep.  Averroes was once a court philosopher, though changing political tides led to his becoming an exile and dissident.  Chahine, similarly, was known in the 1960s as Nasser’s filmmaker, a position of prominence he would not hold under subsequent leaders, for whom he has been something of a pest.  Averroes’ philosophical writings deal most prominently with the reconciliation of wide-ranging intellectual traditions in art, philosophy, religion and politics, a position that was not fashionable as the Inquisition began.  Chahine’s own work similarly draws on and synthesizes wide-ranging traditions in making contemporary political interventions, and this intellectual omnivorousness has made him the subject of a good deal of criticism at home and abroad.  Many of Averroes’ writings were commentaries on Aristotle, the philosopher of art, politics, and rhetoric whose influence has bridged Middle Eastern, Eastern European and Western traditions.  The films Chahine has directed, similarly, are in part characterized by their critical appropriation of techniques that characterize the films of the Soviet Sergei Eisenstein and the American Orson Welles, two filmmakers who likewise have profoundly influenced discussions of film’s relationship to other arts, politics, and rhetoric the world over.  Chahine seems to have alluded to the connection in another context at the Cannes Film Festival the preceding summer, where he presented a lecture discussing principles of drama as they have descended from Aristotle. 

More subtle and perhaps more profound commentary comes from Chahine’s setting of the film almost entirely among very complex communities of Arabs and Gypsies – one of the nomadic European peoples of Eastern origin who suffered enormously during both the Inquisition and World War II – in Europe.  Rather than relegating them to the background as is the tendency in films about Europe, Chahine lets them dance and sing and love and battle and travel together, indicating they are people whose actions among each other are worthy of study, rather than exclusively in relation to the sorts of people we usually associate with Europe, those people whose acts of repression during the Inquisition served as practice for repression in their conquering of the Americas.  Through his interethnic intellectual montage, he also links religious and intellectual repression among these and other peoples, as always pointing out cultural similarities rather than focusing on differences. 

Aspects of autobiography, Middle Eastern, and European history and location all come together in the significance of the preservation and dispersion of Averroes’ work to Europe.  The struggle of Joseph (whose name is closely related to Youssef; during the retrospective Chahine himself was often referred to as “Joe”) to bring Averroes’ work to an archive in France, and the French archivist’s enthusiasm at receiving anything at all recalls Chahine’s relationship with France and the Cinematheque Francaise.  Chahine reportedly has a loyal following in France, where some of the producers of Destiny live and where the journals Cinémaction and Cahiers du Cinéma have both published special issues on him and his films.  The Cinematheque’s curator Dominique Paini, the director said earlier in the series, had saved the only print of Once Upon a Time the Nile of which he approves.

Nasser’s preservation of Averroes’ work in Egypt and his subsequent reconciliation with both Abdullah and Averroes resonates still more powerfully.  For Nasser is the Crown Prince, and he also bears the name of the President with whom Chahine was closely associated, especially in the era of Saladin.  President Nasser had commissioned Saladin, intending for it to equate himself as the President who was uniting the Arabs during the 1950s and 60s, when mass slaughters and battles at ports figured prominently, with the great King who united the Arabs to resist the European Crusaders.  The full title of the film is in fact Saladin the Victorious, or Al-Nasir Sallah-al-Din, with the word for “Victorious” inserted as an allusion to the President.  Nasser, moreover saw art and artists as fundamental to national culture, a vision Chahine reinforces in his representation of himself, like Averroes, as an artist / intellectual concerned with affairs of state, as well as his apparent representation of himself in the role of Issa, like himself an impetuous and argumentative middle to upper-class Arab Christian who loves a French woman and who, while part of the struggle, doesn’t belong on the front lines.  This appreciation carries over into a commentary on contemporary civic projects.  While Destiny was being filmed a new library was under construction in Alexandria, and Chahine seems to be advocating that a film archive and center be included so that young Egyptians need not travel to Europe to learn about their own country.  The naming of Nasser’s brother as Abdullah further recalls the name of the Jordanian leader who was like Nasser a leader through times of war in the Arab world.  The brothers’ reconciliation with their father and their defiance of all agents of a repressive power to the north of another land with which Nasser is associated and their launching of a strike against that force thus forecasts an Arab reunification tied with the resumption of a battle.  As Chahine looks to his work being preserved for the future, he recalls the past, and sees a young man associated with himself at another time and place in the Middle East coming to power.  The leaders of the future, he suggests, should emulate the great leaders of the past, especially in their respect for all people, including the philosophers, the filmmakers, and also the nomadic Europeans who will dance, sing and even love with them.  They should also be prepared to continue the ongoing battles against those who collude in the destruction of art and life.

As I exited the theater after the second time I saw the film, I sat down next to a couple waiting on a bench in the lobby.  I planned to spend the next hour or so just watching the audience change as the Chahine series overlapped with the next film festival.  The man of the couple asked me if it was a good film, remarking that they had come too late and had been turned away from seeing the film, but now they were there to meet someone.  I told him it is truly a great film, though I don’t think it is one of the best Chahine has directed.  Moreover, I added, the film was playing to nearly full houses of very complex audiences.

“Lots of Spaniards and Arabs?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, noting that when the Prophet Muhammad’s name was mentioned in the film I heard several people in the audience join the onscreen characters in their verbal acknowledgment. 

“And,” I added, “among others, a lot of Jews, too.”

He sighed, smiled wryly, and looked away.  The person they were waiting for had emerged from the theater.  The man and his wife smiled warmly and said good-bye as they passed outside.  I saw them pause and point at the calendar in the doorway as they were leaving, recognizing that the Chahine festival was ending and, in a different kind of interethnic intellectual montage, a festival of films from another land in the Middle East was beginning within the hour.  They clutched hands and vanished into the night.  I stayed inside, recalling what the father of Issa says to his son who learns from women and men: “Try to learn from each of these men his best traits.”

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1.  An earlier version of this essay appeared as “Letter from New York: The Apple and a Youssef Chahine Retrospective.”  Film International 24 (Tehran, Spring 1999).

2.  Postscript, August 2003: Some five years have passed since the experiences discussed in this essay.  Samira Makhmalbaf, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Youssef Chahine have all directed new films.  The Makhmalbaf filmmaking family has continued to expand.  Marziyeh Meshkini, Mohsen’s wife and Samira’s step-mother, has directed a film, as have Samira’s brother Maysam and their sister Hana.  I myself have lived in three different cities, held seven different jobs, and backed into the fields of film distribution and exhibition.  I’ve even worked with several films directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and by another filmmaker I first encountered a few hours after that final showing of Destiny.  Over these five years, in my mind I’ve returned again and again to The Apple, Saladin, and Destiny, and to the extraordinary conditions of exhibition in which I encountered them.  My sincere thanks, in absentia, go to the people who made and showed those films.

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