Director's love-hate relationship with the United States

Friday, September 17, 2004

By Nadia Abou El-Magd ~ The Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt -- A father-son encounter in acclaimed Egyptian director Youssef Chahine's new film sums up the anger, misunderstanding and ambiguous intimacy of Chahine's own relationship with the United States.

"Arabs are ignorant, backward, they ride camels and live in tents," the son explodes when he discovers the father he never knew is Egyptian. He goes on to boast of America's power.

That earns a lecture from his father, who says history remembers artists and poets, "not the soldiers, the army, and death. ... This arrogance is going to doom you and America."

"Alexandria ... New York" premiered at this year's Cannes Festival. At its Cairo opening earlier this summer, Chahine said that his 34th feature film was one of his best.

Chahine, 78 and smoking against his doctors' orders, held a reporter's hand to his heart.

"I'm excited, my heart is beating so hard," said Chahine, who was hospitalized more than a year ago with heart trouble.

The polished, 128-minute Egyptian-French production is the fourth in Chahine's autobiographical series, following "Alexandria ... Why?" in 1978, "An Egyptian Tale" four years later and "Alexandria ... Again and Forever" in 1989.

"Alexandria ... New York," filled with the music and dancing Chahine adores, takes place mostly in America. Yehia, the Chahine stand-in played by Egyptian ballet dancer Ahmed Yehia, arrives in New York to study after leaving his hometown of Alexandria. In real life, Chahine studied acting for two years at California's Pasadena Playhouse in the 1940s.

The movie recounts Yehia's fascination with the United States and his affair with an American dancer, Ginger. When Ginger asks him how he became such a great dancer, he explains that because he wasn't rich or good looking, dancing was the only way for him to attract girls.

Yehia visits again in 1975, disillusioned with America, but still in love with Ginger. Then he becomes a film director and visits again in 1998 -- when he learns that he had a son with Ginger, Alexander Penn, a celebrated ballet dancer. The son is also played by Ahmed Yehia, with blue contact lenses.

For all their anger -- at one point, the father says he wants to recognize his son as little as the son wants to acknowledge him -- the two touch each other through their art. Alexander is shown crying as he watches one of his father's movies, and Yehia cries as he watches his son dance in another scene.

Alexander says that Jews control show business in the United States, so his Arab ancestry will hurt his career. But it is his Jewish ballet instructor, Bady, played by Maher Selim, who forces a reconciliation, telling him he won't teach him unless he watches his father's movies. Bady declares that when Jews were persecuted in different parts of the world, "the Jews in Egypt and Alexandria, in particular, were living in absolute security."

Presenting Jews in a sympathetic light, not unusual for Chahine, is almost as jarring in an Egyptian movie as his frank sex scenes. The importance of tolerance is a recurring theme in Chahine's movies, and its symbol is often his native Alexandria. Chahine was born to a Christian family of Lebanese origin in Alexandria in 1926, then a city whose cosmopolitan mood was set by its many European residents.

Chahine tries to explain Arabs' anger at the United States, including news footage of a funeral of a Palestinian said to have been killed by Israelis using American-made weapons.

Jane, Yehia's French wife, tells Alexander his father once loved America, but suffered because of "what America did to him and his people."

In a 2003 interview with The AP, Chahine said he was "a great lover of America for more than 60 years," but he hates its political policies he sees as anti-Arab.

"I didn't cease loving it, but I'm very angry," Chahine said. "It is anger without hate, you can call it love-anger relationship."

Lebanese film critic Ibrahim Al-Aris, writing in the pan Arab daily Al-Hayat, said "Alexandria ... New York" manages to convey that complexity.

"The movie is more beautiful than just a fashionable political statement," Al-Aris wrote, calling it a gentle admonishment of America, "which is betraying itself before anybody else."

Egyptian critic Tarek el-Shenawi called the movie a gift to America, "wrapped in kisses and tears."

The movie ends with Yehia walking in heavy rain in New York. In the background, a man's voice sings: "Oh, end of the most beautiful love story, I was longing to live in a beautiful embrace, but New York kills any longing."

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