FILM ARCHIVES

Agit Pop

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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.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 20, 1998

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