The second World War is often remembered as a cataclysmic confrontation between good and evil, the global carnage it engendered raising the conflict’s stakes to an epic pitch. Yet in addition to simplifying what was unquestionably a horrific chain of events, this view also doesn’t account for how the war actually played out in non-European locales, particularly the Asian and African theatres of operation. A film like director Youssef Chahine’s Alexandria…Why?, on the other hand, provides this much-needed context, chronicling everyday life in an Egypt on the brink of invasion, where despite the looming threat, the lines of battle were not so clear cut. Presenting a wide variety of different perspectives, the film elucidates why some might imagine such an attack as a form of liberation, freeing them from the firm hand of the British colonial state.

This kind of situation has previously been rendered in broader terms by Hollywood and other industries, by writers and directors not necessarily interested in the indigenous point of view. Films like Casablanca, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Pepe Le Moko all operate through an exoticizing lens, employing their North African locations as a lurid backdrop against which elemental narrative arcs can be dramatized. In movies of this type, Nazi-allied agents are always shiftless, sinister villains, depictions rooted in deep-seated stereotypes about how the colonized should adjust to the occupation of their countries. An insider portrayal like this allows us to move past such gross generalizing of those movies, offering a rare corrective from a country whose cinema is not always widely available to American audiences.

What’s even more surprising is that Alexandria…Why? can currently be found streaming on Netflix, a service whose coffers of foreign and/or classic films have become nearly totally drained in the last few years. Yet in a bizarre twist they do host a dozen or so movies by Chahine, an underappreciated Egyptian master whose Cairo Station remains one of the finest portrayals of the deranging effects of corporatized foreign subjugation leading to the kindled fires of extremism.

Less overly political, shot through with the brassy color and expansive scope of the over-ambitious ‘70s-era epic, Alexandria…Why? finds the director in a reflective mood. His representation of the war years centers around a cosmopolitan but impoverished household similar to his own growing up, with a bustling family of Melkite Christians navigating the pitfalls of life in a city on the brink. As the battles of El-Alamein play out just to the west, teenage student Yehia (Mohsen Mohiedine) attempts to convert his love for Hollywood movies into a series of ill-fated school productions. Reflecting the diverse character still left over from the preceding Ottoman era, Chahine’s personal fantasia of the city comprises Jews, Muslims and Christians of varying national origins and political affiliations, as well as the familiar influx of British soldiers and foreign opportunists looking to profit off the chaos of war.

Chief among these unlikely characters is the aristocratic playboy Adel (Ahmed Mehrez), an effete gay man with a side hustling drugging and drowning British officers to claim a standing German bounty. This is the exact kind of character that would show up as a squirrely villain in a foreign depiction, but here is afforded a measure of understanding and a high level of class, his sinister edges softening as he falls for one of the men he was planning to murder. Yet his political alignment doesn’t change, which makes sense considering it’s rooted in self-preservation rather than ideology. For most of the characters here, far removed from the heart of the conflict, the Germans are no worse than the British, who for many in this region had been the preeminent bad guy for nearly a century.

Depictions like this force us to consider how the circumstances of our birth end up drastically influencing our view of the outside world. This connects further to the Why of the title, which for Yehia boils down the question of why he was born in this place, which to his eyes sits so far from the heart of anything artistically important. It’s a question the movie answers via its own existence, as the adult Chahine, filming 35 years later, portrays this complex network of diverging ideologies and interests as only an insider could. The world he imagines here had by that point long ceased to exist, resulting in a vivid time capsule work, one that culminates with Yehia heading for America to attend film school. Arriving at Ellis Island, he’s greeted by a burlesque rendition of the Statue of Liberty, who laughs at his arrival from above, aware that the boy’s fate lies not in breaking into American cinema but reshaping his country’s own.

Discovering a trove of Chahine’s films on Netflix ultimately serves as a reminder of how much the narrow focus of streaming services deprives us of such contrasting and illuminating viewpoints. A diversity of voices is rightfully prized in the new content these services produce, but in terms of providing an adequate overall picture of historical world cinema, they fall woefully short. With such a wide span of material all relegated to niche providers like MUBI and the Criterion Channel, or found extra-legally on YouTube or torrent sites, the casual viewer might presume these types of movies don’t even exist. At a time when we’re more discouraged than ever to embrace different experiences and ways of life, the paucity of perspectives on display stands as a huge missed opportunity to expand such understanding.

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