Despite a long illness, celebrated film critic Samir Farid published his prolific column in the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm from 2004 until two weeks before he passed away at 73 on April 4. Right at the end of a 50-year career, right to his last moments, he was dedicated to cinema.
His dedication manifested in many other ways too: a lot of the theory on Egyptian film that is considered a given nowadays can be traced back to his writings. Farid was one of the first to hail Shady Abdel-Salam’s The Mummy, one of the most influential films in Egyptian cinema, which was not taken seriously by the audience and industry on its release in 1972. He was the first to describe the cinematic movement initiated by Mohamed Khan, Daoud Abdel-Sayed, Atef al-Tayeb, Khairy Bishara and others in the 1980s as neorealism. His strong support for new independent cinema continued through his writing and feedback to young filmmakers.
Farid had more than 50 books and thousands of articles to his name, co-founded more than one film festival as well as the Egyptian Association of Film Critics, and created film programming for various institutions. He maintained personal connections with up-and-coming filmmakers and critics until the very end, and here some of them tell Mada Masr about the impact he had on their lives.
Thirty-three-year-old filmmaker Ahmed Nabil (17 Fouad Street, 2013) got to know Farid 10 years ago when he started coordinating the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Cinema Program, of which Farid was the main programmer. Their relationship quickly expanded beyond work, and Farid became a mentor and second father.
Nabil told me that a common accolade used to describe Farid, “the dean of Arab criticism,” was no exaggeration. “He has a similar stature to that of Naguib Mahfouz or Youssef Chahine or others who earned a lot of international recognition for their work but were generally overlooked in Egypt during their lives,” he says.
“It wasn’t just his knowledge of cinema that was vast — he was well-versed in all arts and subjects,” he says. “This shows through his articles, and also his clear position regarding the revolution. I remember when I called him during the 18 days in 2011 to check up on him he told me: ‘I’m in the most beautiful place in Egypt.’”
“He was really able to live in 2017 and use all of the available means of communication to reach out to younger people. He was among the few of his generation that really managed to deal with people who had different positions to him,” he says. “In our generation of filmmakers in Cairo and Alexandria, we were always so happy if Farid liked our films. But this was coming from a place of love, not a desire to exercise authority. He respected the opinions of those younger than him and that’s why he was always able to remain relevant.”
Farid always used to say you can measure the degree of freedom a public has from their ability to see themselves on the screen.
Nabil recalls that Farid always used to say you can measure the degree of freedom a public has from their ability to see themselves on the screen. If people are able to be confronted by their reality, no matter how sour it is, they are free. “He was always tying the role of the artist to their role in their society,” Nabil says.
Farid headed one of the best editions of the Ismailia Film Festival for Short Films and Documentaries, in 1999, and one of the best Cairo International Film Festivals, in 2014, Nabil says: “His ethos was that a festival has to support cinema in the location it’s hosted. It has to serve the audience of its city and the cinema movement in the city and the country hosting it.”
Filmmaker Hala Lotfy (Coming Forth By Day, 2013), now 43, met Farid in 1996 while working as a film critic at the privately owned newspaper Al-Dostour. Farid called to tell her he had nominated her for a state award as best journalist for that year. “You’ll put us all out of a job Hala, he told me,” she remembers fondly.
Farid was a driving force of the industry, she says, pushing forward filmmakers from Tawfik Saleh, Youssef Chahine and Shady Abdel-Salam to the current generation of emerging filmmakers, not only writing about their films but also seeing a first cut and giving feedback. “There was always one copy of a film before Samir Farid, and a more developed copy after his observations,” she says, adding that he would also then promote these films in festivals and the press.
Lotfy remembers that Farid saw a first cut of her feature film Coming Forth by Day, the content and pace of which was unlikely to allow it do well in the Egyptian market, but refrained from writing about it in the local press until it was released in Egyptian cinemas after its festival run. “He dedicated five consecutive columns to the film with the goal of encouraging audiences to see it in the cinema,” she says.
There was always one copy of a film before Samir Farid, and a more developed copy after his observations.
“He understood his role as supporting young directors who are often crushed in the cinema industry and dedicated himself fully to that role,” she adds. “Farid always assured them and stood by individuals, not with institutions or the state.” Before the last Berlinale he asked her to put him in touch with all the Egyptian filmmakers showing their films there, so that he could make sure to see their films before the festival.
Farid was committed to freedom of expression and repeatedly positioned himself against censorship, she says, describing Farid as a father to filmmakers but also a friend and brother. “He made jokes continuously, laughed and made you feel special,” she says. “And his hug was like no other in the world!”
Lotfy says the 2014 CIFF — often referred to in cinema circles as “The Samir Farid Edition” — was the festival’s most significant year, and points out that Farid even published the festival’s budget to counter its reputation for a lack of transparency.
Director and Cimatheque co-founder Tamer El Said, now 44, met Farid when taking his film class at the Cinema Palace in Garden City 25 years ago, and was hugely impressed by his knowledge.
“I could never have imagined that the day would come where he would write something about my films,” Said says. When Said’s short film On Monday, which had won an award at the National Film Festival in 2005, was omitted from that year’s Ismailia Film Festival, Farid wrote an article in supporting the film, and he did the same 12 years later when Said’s feature film In the Last Days of the City was removed from CIFF’s international competition.
“He was so humble and generous,” Said says. “He would never refuse to meet any filmmaker or critique their films if they asked him, even a young director with a short film.”
His critical take on Shady Abdel-Salam’s The Mummy shows how film criticism can give a film weight it might not have accumulated on its own.
Said also compares Farid to Chahine, but in a different context: Just as Chahine paved the way for films written by their directors at a time when directors were mere studios employees, Farid was the first to critically engage with films in an era of celebrity news and straightforward reporting on cinema.
Farid saw film criticism as creating new readings of films in order to digest them on multiple levels, understand their language and share this knowledge with viewers. “His critical take on Shady Abdel-Salam’s The Mummy shows how film criticism, if the critic is aware of their responsibilities, can give a film weight it might not have accumulated on its own,” he adds.
Said remembers an article Farid wrote at the end of 2016 where he listed recent Egyptian films that had won awards in international festivals to prove that independent filmmaking was the big hope for the country’s cinema. “This was a significant position — he confronted the industry with the fact that valuable films are actually being produced outside of it,” he says.
Critic Rasha Hosny, who served on a jury this year at the Berlinale as part of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI), remembers that her father’s library was full of Farid’s books and his articles cut out from the state-owned Al-Gomhurriya newspaper. He wrote about cinema from all over the world.
“Farid was the window through which young people of the 1960s and 1970s looked to follow the largest and most important festivals worldwide,” she told me. “He only ceased playing that role after the Berlinale this February.”
Her last memories with Farid were then, when Farid became the first Arab critic to win the prestigious Berlinale Camera award for lifetime achievement. “I told him of my many failed attempts to get an invitation to attend. He replied to me sweetly, saying: ‘I’m sorry there are a limited number of invitations,’ then he added jokingly, ‘it’s because the invite comes with lunch!’”
Film critic Ramy Abdel-Razek, now 36, met Farid in 2001 at a barbershop on Downtown Cairo’s Sherif Street around the corner from the Egyptian Film Critics Association. Farid introduced himself and said he often went to screenings at the association as a hobby.
In Cairo he was always busy with various things, but during festivals he had nothing on his mind but cinema.
In 2005, Abdel-Razek started writing film reviews in Al-Masry Al-Youm and an article of his was published right next to Farid’s column. “This made me so happy — I considered him a role-model,” he says. “Later when I met him again at the barber, I showed him my article and he read it straight away and told me he liked it.”
When Farid found out that Abdel-Razek had studied Hebrew at Ain Shams University he was very intrigued and asked him why he didn’t write about Israeli films. “Whenever we met he would ask me about my Hebrew and tell me that I’m losing a lot by not critically engaging with Israeli cinema,” he says. “It really preyed on his mind.”
Farid believed that with every generation of filmmakers, a generation of critics comes along. He asked Abdel-Razek to participate in a public film discussion and the two became closer, traveling together to film festivals abroad. These trips include his fondest memories with Farid. “We had a lot of time to walk around, watch films, talk between films,” he says. “I can’t explain how many stories, experiences, information and visions he had during festivals. In Cairo he was always busy with various things, but during festivals he had nothing on his mind but cinema.”
During the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2012, Abdel-Razek remembers Farid telling him at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival that he wasn’t really afraid of a Brotherhood rule but that he was concerned for his library of 14,000 documents on cinema, which he hoped one day would be put in a museum.
“I always told him he needed to write an autobiography, and he would tell me that instead we should make a television program where I would ask him questions and he would reply,” says Abdel-Razek, adding sadly that due to life commitments, this idea never came to fruition.
In the run-up to the edition of CIFF that Farid ran in 2014, director Karim Hanafi, now 39, met Farid for the first time in the office of producer and director Mohamed Samir. Samir and critic Joseph Fahim, whom Farid invited to collaborate on the festival, had arranged the meeting so that Hanafi could show Farid the working copy of his black-and-white, almost silent feature The Gate of Departure. After the screening, Farid congratulated him and said the film would represent Egypt in the festival’s competition.
Hanafi wanted the film to premier in Venice International Film Festival, and despite the fact that Farid wanted to show the film in Cairo, he contacted the Venice festival’s programmers on Hanafi’s behalf. After Venice rejected the film, Farid showed him an article he had written a long time before where he listed renowned directors from around the world who have never shown their films at Venice. “It was as if he was telling me that he considered me one of the most important directors,” Hanafi says.
The 2014 edition of the festival was heavily criticized, and particularly the decision to include a silent film. “Farid responded with humor and further promotion for the film,” Hanafi says.
Hanafi describes Farid as a father to the young filmmakers he met, but a father who didn’t exercise authority: “My relationship with him was a friendship based on good companionship and mutual love for cinema. He was full of love and curious about your dreams and supported them. Even when I wouldn’t call him for some time, he would call me —even when undergoing chemotherapy. He would remove any barriers between him and others.”
Ten years ago, Farid sent a fax to critic and programmer Joseph Fahim, 34 and currently a programmer with Karlovy Vary Film Festival and the Berlin Critics Week, after Fahim quoted him in his weekly column at the independent English newspaper Daily News Egypt. Farid said that he had been following his writing for some time.
They arranged to meet at a screening, where Farid gave him a bag full of his books for Fahim to read. “Then every week we would talk on the phone and discuss my writing,” Fahim says. “After that our relationship evolved and we started going to films and festivals together and he would invite me to have dinners with his family.”
“He was hugely hurt by everything that happened at CIFF,” Fahim says of the 2014 edition and how it was criticized in the industry and media. “It really took and emotional and physical toll on him. I had never seen him as tired and drained.”
Despite their close relationship and mutual respect, they did not see eye to eye on everything. Farid was a left-wing critic of Hosni Mubarak and supported the 2011 revolution, but Fahim says that like many intellectuals, Farid supported Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the first year after 2013, preferring military dictatorship to religious theocracy. Fahim adds that they had many arguments about the subject, until eventually Farid admitted he was right and started to be critical of Sisi, as could be seen in his Al-Masry Al-Youm column, which often took a political turn.
When Farid was awarded the Berlinale Camera 2017, a prestigious lifetime achievement award, his long-time friend and general secretary of the FIPRESCI, of which Samir was a member of since 1973), Klaus Eder, said that he “belongs to a generation of intellectuals who understood criticism not as a judgment, thumbs up or down, but as a possibility to discover cinema, its nature, its language. It may sound old-fashioned, but his writing shows that he is in love with cinema. In the films he saw and reviewed in the 38 years as critic of the daily Al-Gomhurriya — in the films he looked to in order to find his own experience and feeling of life.”
“His numerous activities in favor of cinema are almost unbelievable,” Eder told Mada Masr via email last week. “He dedicated his life to the movies. He treated cinema with respect, with curiosity and with a deep love, as critic, as historian, as organizer. He was the best ambassador of Arab cinema, and he created the memory of Egyptian cinema. We lost a big personality of Arab culture. And we lost a friend.”