“Anyone has the right to like or dislike a film. What, then, is the difference between a common viewer’s reaction and the reaction of a critic?” asked Egypt’s most distinguished film critic and historian, Samir Farid, honoree of the Aruna Vasudev Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Writing on Cinema. Farid was speaking at the 12th Osian’s-Cinefan Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema which conferred the award on him at the recently concluded festival in New Delhi. He suggested the answer himself. “A critic is a professional. Perhaps he can provide the key to a work of art that others cannot.” He went on to enunciate the methods and principles he has adopted and practised in his copious body of writing.
And a spectacularly rich and diverse body it is. More than fifty books, covering – exhaustively – Egyptian cinema, cinemas of the Arab world, Zionism in cinema, Palestinian cinema in the occupied lands, Shakespearean films, Naguib Mahfuz, Youssef Chahine, censorship, political issues in cinema, stars and legends, and directors and directions in world cinema. And that’s just a sampling. What’s more, Farid is also a translator, an editor of cinema magazines, a founder of festivals, and currently the Cinema Supervisor at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. He joins a most prestigious list of honorees at OCFF since the prize was instituted in 2004: Chidananda Das Gupta, Donald Richie, Tadao Sato, Peggy Chiao, Jose Pete Lacaba, all revered critics and historians (some makers or producers films as well) whose writings shed a deep and mellow light on aspects of cinema little known outside their countries’ frontiers.
For Farid, cinematic language is not, as some believe, a bringing together of the languages of the other arts. “Cinema’s language is independent and special.” It plays with literature, theatre and music. Popular cinema and the cinema of individual vision and expression are the two major branches of this art, he said. While he respects both, the former, in his view, does not need a critic, nor any outside help to be received and absorbed. Yet, he did admit he was wrong in disregarding popular cinema in his writings. “Popular cinema is not a shame, and an art filmmaker is not necessarily privileged either,” he admitted.
The task of a critic is at once hard and serious, he says. A critic needs to have a broad base because he writes about films from everywhere. But he is frank enough to admit that one “cannot write with an insider’s knowledge about foreign films since both the language and culture are different.” For all that, a critic needs to distinguish the ‘real’ from the ‘false’.
What he hates are words such as ‘jury’ and ‘judge’. The real measure of a film’s success, he believes, is how a film triumphs over the ravages of time. Does it survive its day, its milieu, its immediate spectator, and remain meaningful to viewers long after it is made? A great film “depends on the use a filmmaker makes of the cinema language to evolve a style of his own, and how that style is intricately linked to its content. There can be no contradiction between the two.”
Samir Farid began his career as a critic for a Cairo daily, Al Gomhoreya, back in 1965. Born in Cairo in 1943, he graduated from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts, and the development of the dramatic arts is one of the reasons he cites for the phenomenal growth of the cinema industry in Egypt as compared to other Arab or African countries. Mainly, “the film audiences are the same as those who used to go to the theatre,” he writes. “The Fine Arts Faculty was created in 1908, the Egyptians accepted seeing their lives represented in the theatre, and then on screen. The first law on cinema was adopted in 1911, while the first film periodical was published in 1923. The creation of the actor’s union and the union of film professionals date back to 1943. Four years later, a Chamber of Commerce for the film industry was set up.
With this historical legacy, and with the film market in Egypt being the largest and the most full-fledged in the Arab world (70% of the market share, and 35-40 films a year, although it was 120 in the 1990s), it is no surprise the Samir Farid’s career metamorphosed into a vocation. He is on the board of Egyptian film magazines, Al-Cinema and Al-Talliaa, apart from magazines in Algeria and Cyprus, and was the Editor-in-Chief of the Egyptian weekly El-Cinema Wa El-Finoun, and on the Consultative Board of the Ministry of Culture.
What about censorship in Egypt? “Filmmakers have either faced censorship (censorship was imposed following the Egypt’s defeat in the Six-Day Arab-Israel War of 1967, Farid said), or have resorted to self-censorship. They were up against a tricky situation, as this is a country which had celebrated its boldness. “We don’t know what will be censored because we don’t know the facts on which censorship is based.” This has happened in the case of religion and politics as well. “Egypt has some 200 directors and an independent cinema in the fullest meaning of the word, but these films are not shown except in private halls.”
Drawing parallels with India, Farid said that both peoples are passionate in their love of cinema. But, given the popularity of Indian films, cinema associations in Egypt are actually “afraid of them, and limit them to five a year. “In an earlier day, the Indian blockbuster, Sangam, ran for a whole year in one cinema hall!”
On the sidelines of cinema, Farid referred briefly to the situation in Egypt today, and spoke with astonishing candour about the Muslim Brotherhood currently in power in his country. “They hate life and cinema, they are against culture itself, (they are) even against ancient tombs! I don’t believe they will succeed in the long-term. But what is the price we will have to pay by then?”
Growing up with cinema for close to fifty years (he has been a habitué of Cannes since 1967), Farid takes a mature view of his role as a critic. “You need to experience both cinema and life. And you must write to provide answers, not only to ask questions.”
Such is the wisdom that comes with half a century of writing, viewing and thinking.