Want to fight fundamentalism? Go make a musical! Such is the beguiling logic of Youssef Chahine, Egypt’s irrepressible, preeminent filmmaker. His Destiny tells the story of Averröes, the 12th-century philosopher whose work was banned by both Arab Andalusia and the Holy Inquisition. Foot-stomping entertainment, it’s a banner for freedom of expression.
At 72, Chahine is physically slight but larger-than-life in his rapturous fascination with humanity. Born in Alexandria, the self-described “mongrel” son of a Greek mother in a Coptic Christian family, he speaks four languages and maintains a healthy disrespect for borders.
The roots of Destiny, he says, go back half a century, when an Egyptian singer introduced him to the thrill of flamenco. “I kept the music in mind for years,” he says. “And when I went to Andalusia, I discovered that there had been a fantastic civilization there, where all religions were living together very well, taking from each other. I thought, this was like the Alexandria of my youth, which I miss now.”
Destiny was also inspired by more recent history. Chahine based the subplot of a young prince seduced by a fanatical religious sect on a true incident of a favorite actor’s conversion to Muslim fundamentalism. And like Averroës, the director saw his work banned by the authorities, when his previous film, The Emigré, got him on a fundamentalist hit list.
“The government gave me three armed guerillas to protect me. I lived with them for three days, and thought, This is a roving prison. So I threw them out, and went into the most dangerous neighborhoods. And with the amount of love I found in the street, I thought, I’m protected by the people. Okay, a nut may come along and kill me, but it doesn’t matter. Security comes from the love of those around you.”