On the sixth day of Zawya’s recent Youssef Chahine Retrospective, they showed Chahine’s Youm al-Sadis (The Sixth Day).
It was made in 1986, a sad year for many of the people involved in it. A sad year for Dalida, who killed herself a year later. A sad year for Salah Jaheen, who killed himself that same year. A sad year for me because it’s the year I was born.
In most of Chahine’s movies there’s a smooth swinging between opposing feelings, interests and cinematic experiences. His own life — as told in many of his movies — was an obvious example of this. Half Lebanese, half Greek, Egyptian born and raised, he studied in French schools and later went to America, where his cinematic skills were manufactured. Chahine witnessed and experienced a lot, he lived a rich life full of influences and crazy historical shifts, and this shaped the way his movies came out. In The Sixth Day this swinging started to gain a sharper rhythm.
I insisted on watching as many of the Chahine movies Zawya showed as possible to give myself the chance to revisit his work at a stage in my life in which I might be less influenced by how Chahine was officially introduced to me, through TV and mainstream culture, and through my father’s opinions about life. I have to admit that many of my opinions about him changed a bit, and I managed to see his work in a frame a bit larger than that of Egyptian cinema and its limited, slightly isolated sphere.
Yet I have always — until I saw The Sixth Day this time — had a problem with the Egyptian/foreign dynamic in his movies. I thought the exploration of rural Egypt, poverty and Egyptian identity and culture in his work was quite exploitative. Especially when intricately integrated with Chahine’s signature acting style, funny lines, or a crazy Gene-Kelly-style dance scene in the middle of a working-class Egyptian neighborhood or graveyard.
To be honest, I’d been trying to find an ethical reason for why his movies didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to convince myself that there was something he was doing “wrong,” as if there was no possible way for my dislike to be my own fault, or at least nobody’s fault. But Chahine didn’t try to hide his foreignness. In one of his movies, he said he wrote his scripts in French first then translated them into Arabic, because he thought it was better that way. His lack of shame about his unusual point of view is especially clear in The Sixth Day, which is full of symbolism and seems the most honest and mature of his movies in dealing with his relationship with Egypt and the way he communicated with it.
The story, from a novel by Andre Shadid, is about a very dark chapter in Egyptian history: The 1947 cholera epidemic that killed thousands of people. Siddeqa, a poor middle-aged laundry woman, is trying to take her little child to Alexandria because she believes the sight of the sea will cure him. On the way she meets Oukka, a young street entertainer and monkey trainer who falls in love with her. The name The Sixth Day comes from the common belief then that cholera takes six days to kill an infected person, unless he or she is cured — and the seventh day is the relief.
This darkness is explored in a very elegant cinematic way. Mohsen Nassr, in one of many successful collaborations with Chahine, helped produce a dreamy image that cleverly delivers the fairy-tale nature of the story. The film’s first half almost entirely happens on a set of a small 1940s alley, which feels a bit fake like a TV soap opera.
There are many levels of symbolism, and the most striking is in the casting. Siddeqa is played by Dalida, an Egyptian-born French singer of Italian descent who barely spoke Arabic. Her foreign features and hilarious accent make it impossible to ever forget that this is a Youssef Chahine movie, yet the captivating drama keeps you interested until the end. I see this as an obvious reflection of Chahine himself and the way he sees himself in Egypt, and the way he sees Egypt in Siddeqa: A mixture of many influences and identities in a moment of craziness.
The story is tragic and full of sad moments that Chahine tries to weave his joyful approach to life into. Chahine himself appears as a cinema owner from Aleppo who has to go back to his country, a sad old man in a western suit covered in an abaya with a Palestinian scarf and a fez on his head. You can’t be more visually symbolic than that. Chahine is silently in love with Seddiqa, who likes to watch movies in his cinema and cry.
There’s a scene where Seddiqa is watching a scene from a black-and-white movie in Chahine’s cinema. It’s a final scene, a last-words-from-a-hospital-bed scene that Chahine deliberately made in a very cliched way, and she is crying. Even though it’s a bit funny that everybody in the scene is over-acting and the music and lines are so melodramatic, I felt very emotional when I saw Dalida crying, and it made me think about that thin line between delusion and actual emotional engagement in cinema generally and in Chahine’s work specifically.
As well as Seddiqa and the cinema owner, there’s a reincarnation of another side of Chahine in Oukka (Mohsin Mohie Eddin). Oukka won’t stop dancing with his monkey, whom he seems to have a romantic relationship with. He is fascinated by blondes, and blondness in general. Early on he bleaches his hair, but changes his mind later and tries really hard to dye it back to black and fails, ending up with a patchy funny-looking head, half shaved. I couldn’t help but see a telling of Chahine’s own relationship with his westernness, turning from a passion into a curse.
“I have to look good so people will like me, and like my show,” Oukka explains.
There are repeated mentions of the British. For some reason Chahine was often in the habit of changing historical details to fit his own way of seeing a story. The movie pretends that the cholera epidemic happened after the British left Egypt, which is not historically true, yet the line: “The British had left Egypt and left the cholera behind them,” spoken by one of the characters, does have historical meaning: It’s not mentioned but the cholera was carried to Egypt in the body of a British soldier moved from India, and there have been many incidents in history where colonialism spread lethal diseases to underdeveloped countries in which people didn’t have the same immunity. Politically there’s strong symbolism too, reflecting the state of post-colonial Egypt — infected, ill, weak and struggling, just like Seddiqa.
We see people “reporting” infected people to the authorities and getting paid for it. A strict doctor fighting the virus (Abla Kamel) shows a merciless face and a zero-tolerance policy toward the threat. People are thrown into the desert to isolate them from the population. I love to believe that this was a sad reproach from Chahine to the Nasser era that he loved and supported, making movies that aligned with its policies sometimes and criticized it at others.
The Sixth Day was made at a time when many dreamers were losing hope and realizing that the future they had believed in wasn’t going to happen. Jaheen, who wrote the lyrics for the famous song Tofaan (Flood) that Mohamed Mounir sings in the middle of the movie, was one of the people who lived the liberation dreams and the early days of the 1952 revolution. In the song, which he wrote a few months before he killed himself, he says:After the flood, vision is misty, we call each other with a hoarse cry, […] It is, indeed, unfair — we only start to learn right after the flood.
In a sentimental scene on the boat, an old sailor, who is introduced to the movie very late and no doubt represents another Chahine, speaks about his life. “I almost killed myself when I lost her,” he says. “I got on the boat and traveled a lot, went to a city in the north, met many people. And after all that there was only one thing that I gained. Courage.”
And if there’s one word I would choose to describe Chahine’s life and his cinema, out of all the confusion, I’d describe it as courageous.