LGBT Movies: Alexandria… Why? (1979)

Youssef Chahine was one of Egypt’s most acclaimed film directors. In Alexandria… Why? he recounts his teenage years. World War 2 is raging and Egypt’s economy is collapsing. Chahine’s alter ego, Yehia, escapes into dreams of Hollywood. Actor Mohsen Mohieddin makes Yehia sympathetic despite his tunnel vision. Chahine contrasts his simple coming-of-age tale with messy stories of rebels, soldiers and star-crossed lovers. Most controversial is a subplot for Yehia’s uncle Aled (Ahmed Mehrez) who romances a British soldier (Gerry Sundquist). Chahine would continue to make semi-autobiographical films, letting Yehia explore his own sexuality in later installments.  

I’ll focus on Yehia and Aled’s storylines in this spoiler filled recap.  

Act One: Coming of Age

Scene One: A Cinema in Alexandria. 1942.
BRITISH SOLDIER: I hate Egyptians.
YEHIA (a teen cinephile): Quiet! I’m watching the movie! Gosh, that Eleanor Powell sure can dance.
TEEN FRIENDS: Wouldn’t you rather pick up girls? You gay or something?
YEHIA: Bisexual. But I won’t admit it till the sequel.  

Scene Two: Outside a Bar
ALED (Yehia’s Aristocratic Uncle): I’m gay. And a Nationalist! I’m going to assassinate a British Soldier.
TWINK: (A handsome British Soldier. Sings drunkenly.) Mom was killed by a bomb! Now I’m sent to the front! But I’m just a little runt!
ALED: (Points a gun at the Twink.) I hate you. I hate your blonde hair and your pretty blue eyes and…
TWINK: I miss my mom. (Twink drunkenly hugs Aled.)
ALED: Oh no.

Scene Three: Private School
TEACHER: Who memorized a speech from Hamlet?
YEHIA: Me! Me! Me! Look here upon this picture and on this, the counterfeit presentment of two brothers!
TEEN FRIENDS: Show off. Let’s have group sex with a prostitute in our car.
YEHIA: I’ll pass. Straight boys are weird.

Scene Four: Aled’s Bedroom
TWINK: Where are my clothes?
ALED: I should probably still kill you. Breakfast?

Act Two: Show Biz

Scene Five: Theater
YEHIA: I want to be an actor.
DAD: We’re broke. You need a real job.
YEHIA: The Ambassador is here. It’s time for my show!
TEEN FRIENDS: “And now it’s Springtime for Hitler and Germany!”
(Yehia and his friends perform burlesque impressions of British, German, Italian and Egyptian soldiers. We alternate between them and the real battlefield till the worlds overlap.)

Scene Six: Army Base
ALED: The Germans are nearly here. The city is evacuating.
TWINK: I was lonely before I met you. Did you really murder British soldiers?
ALED: Yes. I’m a patriot.
TWINK: You’re a fool. And I’m off to the front.

Scene Seven: Bigger Theater
YEHIA: We’re performing for the Princess tonight!
ACTORS: There was no time for rehearsal! The show’s a mess. The Princess and half the audience left.
(Yehia dances on stage for a near empty house. He cries.)
YEHIA: I have to get out of this country.

Act Three: Dreams

Scene Eight: A Graveyard. 1945.
ALED: Germany surrendered. But Twink didn’t survive.
(Aled cries. The camera pans across rows of tombstones.)

Scene Nine: A Ship
DAD: I’ve found you a real job.
YEHIA: But I’ve just been accepted to drama school in America!
DAD: Then I’ll sell everything I have to get you a visa.
(Yehia sails to America. The Statue of Liberty winks and laughs)
YEHIA: Magical realism this late in the film?


Why Not?

“I don’t kill someone whose name I know. I should have never asked your name, never offered you my bed, never spent the whole night looking at you.”

Aled. Alexandria… Why?

My recap left out the Jewish woman whose Muslim lover is arrested for attacking British soldiers, the rebels who hope to assassinate Winston Churchill, striking factory workers, Yehia’s wealthy male friend/possible crush and a flashback to Yehia’s late brother. (“The wrong kid died.”) There are so many characters that few get the chance to really develop. When Yehia’s family sells their belongings to send him abroad it doesn’t fully register. We don’t know enough about them. Uncle Aled barely says ten words to his nephew, though he supports his artistic dreams.

Despite the messy structure and uneven pacing, I enjoyed Alexandia… Why? The film won the Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. Egypt submitted it for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Chahine would continue to experiment with surrealism throughout his career. When he filmed 1989’s Alexandria: Again and Forever he was playing himself and performing homoerotic musical numbers.

You can read about Chahine’s body of work at the Guardian and the British Film Institute. The Youssef Chahine podcast discussed Alexandria… Why? in their eleventh episode here. You can find more of my reviews on The AvocadoLetterboxd and Serializd. My podcast, Rainbow Colored Glasses, can be found here.