Saturday, 15 June 2019

Youssef Chahine, The Nile, The Soviets

Youssef Chahine

One of the six* Youssef Chahine films which will be screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019 is one of its director's epic works from the 1960s and his first film conceived as a co-production between Egypt and the Soviet Union. I haven't mentioned the title of the film yet as it's exactly the reason I'm posting the translation of this interview with Chahine: the confusion about the title of the film.

The film in question is about Aswan Dam which was one of President Gamal Abdel Nasser's most ambitious projects. It was built with the help of Russians after Nasser was turned down by Americans. Chahine was assigned to make a film about it with a cast from both Egypt and Russia and scenes shot around the Nile, as well as in Moscow and Leningrad.

However, the film was banned upon completion and Chahine was asked to do another film on the same subject. The title of the second film which he directed but didn't like was Al-Nas va Al-Nil (People and the Nile, 1972). This film was distributed in Egypt and had some scenes in common with the "director's cut."

For years, that was the only version available until the original film was discovered in and restored by Cinémathèque Française. Chahine started calling his revived film Al-Nil va al-Hayat (Life and the Nile).

Poster for Al-Nas va al-Nil (originally shown in 70mm)

In Bologna, we will be screening the latter version that Chahine liked and approved on June 26, 11AM, Cine Jolly. However, note that the Arabic title of the film in the opening sequence is still Al-Nas va Al-Nil (People and the Nile) even if it is actually Al-Nil va al-Hayat! At this point, I still don't know why.

Back to the troubled history of making this Nile project, Chahine explained the genesis of the film and the problems he had in an interview with newspaper Al Hayat. I have used Google translator and my basic knowledge of Arabic to make this text available to you, as I believe the information given here is important in avoiding the confusion regarding the title of the film.


"I started in 1964 when I was assigned to make a film about the Aswan Dam. They suggested to me a novel by Musa Sabri entitled Tomorrow Begins Life. But I found it incompatible with my ideas and put it aside to write [an original] script. I presented it to the censorship, got the approval and started casting which included Nadia Lutfi, Sanaa Jamil and Saif al-Din. [Then I] traveled to Aswan to film some of the documentary scenes.

[After Chahine returns to Cairo, he finds himself in trouble with the ministry. So he abandons the projects and goes to Lebanon]

President Abdel Nasser learned that I had left without completing the film and had asked about me. He says "Chahine 
has made us a great film  — Nasser Salah al-Din —; Why don't you give him what he wants to make this film [about the dam]? I want him to be here in Egypt."

[The word reaches Chahine in Lebanon who is already homesick. He decides to return and finish the film.]

We wrote a new scenario based on the story of Abdul Rahman Al-Sharqawi and selected new actors such as Imad Hamdi, Zuzo Madi, Madiha Salem, Saif al-Din and Salah Zulfikar. When the film was finished, the Egyptian officials got angry at the film and accused me of making the Russian engineer seem to be the one who built the Dam and that I had underrepresented the Egyptian engineer. They objected to my mentioning Haifa and a scene in which the Egyptian engineer is walking behind the Russian engineer [suggesting that they were not equal.] I told them the actor playing the Egyptian engineer was tired during the shoot [and that's why he fell behind!]. They also objected to a scene in which the Egyptian engineer appeared in his home wearing a jalabiya. Then when the Russian engineer visits him he wears the trousers and shirt over the jalabiya. They said that you made the Egyptian engineer seem backward. The most surprising thing was that the Russians told me that we have beautiful streets in Moscow which you haven't shown in your film.

[The] film was rejected by both sides. The result was that they put the film on the shelf and asked me to shoot a new film that was starring Soad Hosni. What is important is that I made a miracle and took the documentary scenes that we filmed for the construction of the dam and the scenes of the Russian actors filmed in the Soviet Union from negative and added it to the new film we filmed with the new Egyptian actors Suad Hosni, Izzat Al-Alayli and Mahmoud El Meligy. It was like a home delivery service, as if they were asking for a pizza, not a movie. I agreed [to do a second version because] I did not want the first experience of co-production between Egypt and the Soviet Union to fail.

[A copy of the original film was donated to Henri Langlois and discovered in mid-1990s.]

About five years ago they discovered that there was a positive copy of the film in Cinémathèque Française, and it was fortunate that the film was filmed on Russian film stock which had a longer life 
compared to American stock. The colour in Russian films does not change quickly.

[The film was restored in France. They began to call this superior and Chahine-approved version Al-Nil fi al-Hayat]

I am very happy not only to to see the film out, but also because of the wonderful reception it had in Paris. I could not believe my eyes when I entered the cinema in Paris at the opening ceremony and found it packed. I thought that the audience would not exceed two or three people. I was overwhelmed when the French audience engaged in a discussion afterwards. It was a very serious discussion. There were Africans among the audience asking me about the Nubians and what the state did to them after their villages sank under Lake Nasser.

* It used to be seven, but the screening of Djamila was cancelled due to poor print quality.

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