Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Nine Views in a Looking Glass: Film Trilogies by Chahine, Gitai, and Kiarostami

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Nine Views in a Looking Glass: Film Trilogies by Chahine, Gitai, and Kiarostami

Article excerpt

Separate nations, separate languages, separate generations: It ought to be impossible to find points of commonality among Youssef Chahine, Amos Gitai, and Abbas Kiarostami. Each is recognized as the leading filmmaker of his country (respectively Egypt, Israel, and Iran). But, that said, what might these exemplary figures exemplify?

Chahine, born in 1926, is a natural showman who wanted from the first to be a moviemaker. Trained for a brief period in Hollywood, he rose rapidly in the Egyptian film business, which in his youth was a thriving entertainment industry serving the entire Arab world, but which today has withered to a handful of productions. By contrast, Gitai, born in 1950, started out as an architect and social critic and made his first films-documentaries-for television. He began his career in feature filmmaking during a period of self-imposed political exile in France, and may be said to have inserted himself almost as a foreign agent into the small and chronically mediocre body of Israeli cinema. As for Kiarostami, born in 1940, he began his career as a graphic artist and director of television commercials; his first films were short educational pieces for children. The unanticipated emergence of Iranian cinema, in the post-revolutionary period, as one of the most vital schools of filmmaking since Italian neo-realism coincided with Kiarostami's sudden rise on the international scene. By the end of the 1990s, he was arguably the most admired filmmaker in the world.

These directors can and do speak to one another. Chahine and Kiarostami, for instance, shared the applause at the 1997 Cannes festival, where Chahine was given the festival's fiftieth anniversary award in recognition of his career's work, while Kiarostami won the Palme d'Or for Taste of Cherry. And if you visit Gitai's website, you will find proudly displayed beneath the filmmaker's portrait an endorsement by Youssef Chahine: "Gitai ... is exceedingly courageous.... He goes very, very far." But beyond the fact that all three now address an international audience (and depend on international financing), that all three have staked out risky political positions and have faced censorship in varying degrees, what draws them together?

The answer begins with chronology. Although Chahine's career dates back at least to 1951 and Son of the Nile, he embarked on a remarkable new phase in his work-one might almost say a second beginning-in 1978, with the release of Alexandria... Why? It was only a few years later, in 1986, that Gitai came out with his first feature, Esther. And although Kiarostami began directing features in 1974 (The Traveler), the Iranian revolution soon interrupted his work. His first important picture, Where Is the Friend's Home?, was not released until 1987, making him in a sense the newest feature filmmaker of the three.

The generation gap narrows, if it doesn't close. With this narrowing, individual circumstances start to seem meaningfully different, rather than chaotically varied, since in their own ways all three are creatures of today's art-film market and festival circuit. Whatever trials they may face in this system (where a Third World director can serve, in Chahine's words, as a "cultural alibi" for the Europeans and Americans who hold power), the three are also committed to nonsectarian and internationalist principles-which means that Cannes can sometimes be more comfortable for them than Tehran, Jerusalem, or Cairo.

There's also a curious formal link among Chahine, Gitai, and Kiarostami. All three have made trilogies, which constitute a crucial body of their work. This coincidence might be no more significant than any other instance of numerological happenstance. But since we're dealing with cultures that have long been fascinated with numerology-and since poets everywhere have devoted so much of their time to counting-I propose to take a close look at this set of three times three.

The opening film in Chahine's trilogy, Alexandria. …

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