Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Obituary: Samir Farid (1943-2017)A reel philosopher

A reel philosopher

Last week social media timelines were filled with grief and condolences following news of the death of senior film critic Samir Farid at the age of 73, following a struggle with cancer. It was remarkable how many younger filmmakers Farid was connected with, who regarded him as a mentor and role model.

Farid was born in Cairo in 1943, and studied criticism at the Theatre Institute, graduating in 1963. His father, Said Farid, had been an Al-Ahram journalist on good terms with the then editor in chief Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who naturally offered Samir a job. But the budding critic felt Al-Ahram was too conservative and old-guard, preferring the more progressive Al-Gumhuria – published by Dar Al-Tahrir, which was founded in the wake of the July Revolution in 1952 to promote change and direct public opinion to the importance of independence and national liberation – where Samir Farid was appointed in 1965. At the cultural level, Al-Gumhuria represented the enlightened intellectuals of the day: Taha Hussein, Mohamed Mandour and Louis Awad.

The year 1967-68 was significant for Egypt and the world at large. It was especially significant for Farid who – according to his own statements in the journalist Wael Abdel-Fattah’s National Film Festival book Samir Farid: The Adventure of Criticism – was sent by the editor in chief of Al-Gumhuria, novelist Fathi Ghanem, to the Cannes Film Festival in 1967. Farid was then 23, and had never travelled in his life. In those days dozens as opposed to thousands of journalists and critics attended the festival, and having attended Cannes and written about it Farid was invited to major festivals where he discovered the latest cinematic trends, especially French New Wave cinema, and was exposed to the 1968 student movement and so adopted a kind of left-wing thinking very different from that prevailing in the Arab world at the time, which was Cold War centred and traditional, championing change and rebellion so much so that he said he was a leftist in the manner of Goddard. This made him a harsh critic of traditional and retrogressive cinema.


A reel philosopher

Al-Cinema wal-Funoun, the avant-garde magazine he founded in 1977 and edited until it was discontinued 35 issues in, was among Farid’s most beautiful and difficult experiences. Though a Dar Al-Tahrir publication, the decision to stop publishing it issued from the then Al-Ahram editor in chief, novelist Youssef Al-Sibai, whose influence was pervasive due partly to his closeness to President Sadat. “It was,” Farid said of the magazine, “the dream of a whole generation through which I met Mohamed Dawwara, Kamel Zuhairi, Ahmad Kamel Mursi and Abdel-Fattah Al-Gamal.” In 1977 the Bread Intifada of 18-19 January took place, so did Sadat’s visit to the Knesset, which opened the way to normalising relations with Israel, a policy then opposed by the entire intellectual community including Farid. The result was that Farid was transferred from Al-Gumhuria to the State Information department, effectively banned from writing towards the end of Sadat’s reign, when many intellectuals were either removed from their posts or detained as punishment for their oppositional stance. Sadat was to be assassinated on 6 October 1981 during the annual victory parade.

Farid transformed Arabic film criticism from mere writing about films or film stars to a contemplative space in which to theorise about cinema and research artistic possibilities. His commentary on the Egyptian neorealism of the early 1980s was among his most prominent contributions, considering he was the one to give the work of then younger directors Atef Al-Tayeb, Mohamed Khan, Raafat Al-Mihi, Dawoud Abdel-Sayed and Khairi Bishara that name. In the introduction to his book, Neorealism in Egyptian Cinema, Farid writes, “If Al-Azimah, directed by Kamal Selim in 1939 is the start of Egyptian realism in cinema, then Al-Awwamah, directed by Khairi Bishara in 1982, is the start of Egyptian neorealism.” Farid goes on to draw connections between neorealist cinema in Egypt at the time and the regional and global political situation, considering neorealism an extension of the new cinema that appeared in Egypt following the 1967 defeat and the student movement that started the next year. To justify the term “neorealism”, Farid also compares the work of the directors in question to that of their postwar Italian counterparts: “Egyptian neorealism in the 1980s shares with Italian neorealism of the 1950s the tendency of the camera to go out on the streets, resulting from the destruction of the studios by the war in Italy and by the public sector in Egypt. But the two movements also differ in terms of the history of cinematic development.”

Farid wrote over 50 books of film criticism, some of it specialising in Egyptian and Arab cinema and some of it remarking on cinematic trends across the world. Some of Farid’s writing is concerned with contributing to the history of cinema, some focuses on a single landmark film. In all his writing, however, Farid is remarkably precise. He pays attention to every aspect and detail of the film he’s dealing with: its cast and crew, its style, its weak points. His books are reference works in every sense of the term. Only one of Farid’s books, In Defence of Freedom – in which he collected his articles on the experience of being banned from writing, written when he resumed his position at Al-Gumhuria by order of then new president Hosny Mubarak – is unrelated to cinema. In the introduction Farid writes, “With the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and the fall of the Soviet Union and the start of the New World Order, it was no longer possible to write about cinema without expressing my position on what was going on in Egypt and the Arab world, which is inseparable from my position on cinema anyway.”

Throughout his career Farid supported freedom of expression, refusing the position of head censor more than once and often bringing politics into his writing about film. He wrote a lot about films dealing with the Palestinian question as a central issue in Arab affairs, including a 1980 study of anti-Zionist films in the magazine Al-Mawqif Al-Arabi: “Anti-Zionist cinema can be divided into three kinds. First, there is Palestinian cinema, which adopts the aims of the PLO regardless of the nationality of the productions. Secondly, there is anti-Zionist cinema that may or may not abide by the aims of the PLO, many of whose films we saw at the three Palestine Film Festivals in Baghdad in 1973, 1976 and 1978. Thirdly, there is Israeli anti-Zionist cinema which is made by Israelis but produced outside and banned within Israel.”

I asked his opinion once when I planned to visit Tehran in June 2011, and he told me not to go since going would mean acknowledging the Iranian government’s violence towards its citizens and artists (Jafar Panahi was then facing a prison sentence and a sentence banning him from directing for 20 years). But, eager to participate in reversing Mubarak’s policies, I did travel to Iran as part of the “people’s diplomacy” delegation trying to open up dialogue with Iranian intellectuals again following a hiatus in relations under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) – under Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), by contrast, there had been many Iranian-Egyptian exchanges – but I ended up feeling that the deeper point of the journey was to promote Iran as a supporter of the Arab Spring and imply that all revolutions are Islamic like the 1979 revolution. And so Farid, who hated dictatorship whether it came in Arabist, Islamic, leftist or even democratic garb, had been right. Farid did support the Arab Spring, including Egypt’s 25 January Revolution of 2011 – so much so that he kept newspaper clippings of the period in an attempt to document it – something he had done before. I remember being impressed with his documentary passion and precision.

Farid was the one who called for holding a National Film Festival in Egypt. He was the artistic director of the Cairo International Film Festival in 1985. In 2013 the festival had been suffering from organisational and financial problems due largely to the Muslim Brotherhood in power; Farid headed the festival in the first round after the Muslim Brotherhood’s ouster, in 2014, having been offered the job by the then minister of culture Saber Arab. Farid modified the programme and employed a new generation of young film people, instituting fringe activities and new sections including a Critics Week and The Cinema of Tomorrow. His proved to be the festival’s most successful round, attended by a huge audience eager to see a fine selection – so much so that this round is still known as “Samir Farid’s”.

Farid was honoured by the Cannes and Venice film festivals, and last January he was granted the Berlin Film Festival;s Silver Camera in appreciation of his services to the industry.

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