One-on-one with Egyptian film critic and Berlinale honoree Samir Farid

Egyptian film critic Samir Farid holds the Berlinale Camera trophy during a photocall prior to the official award ceremony at the 67th Berlinale film festival in Berlin on February 15, 2017. (AFP)

For more than half a century, Samir Farid has been the face of Arab film criticism. The 73-year-old Cairo-born journalist was the first writer to establish film criticism as a serious form of writing, emerging at a time when film writing was restricted to celebrity news. Hitting the festival scene at the beginning of his career, Farid was among a handful of critics to make an indelible presence in the world’s biggest film fairs, introducing the Egyptian and the Arab audience to a vast cinematic landscape that constantly challenged perceptions of what cinema is expected to be or do.

He championed various Egyptian filmmakers such as Youssef Chahine and Chadi Abdel-Salam, promoted the works of numberless masters like František Vláčil and Ken Loach, and was the first to support the Egyptian independent film wave of the noughties. His accessible, but eloquent, writing style - documented in articles published in Egyptian dailies Al-Gomhoreya and Al-Masry Al-Yom, and in the 60+ books he authored along the years - influenced subsequent generations; while his leftist, anti-Nasserite stance made him a thorn on the side of Egypt’s ruling class.

His last stand-off with the notorious Egyptian Ministry of Culture came in 2014, when he presided over the Cairo International Film Festival in what became the fest’s most successful edition in modern history. Bureaucracy, corruption and political interests forced Farid to resign prematurely after one edition. Having always stood outside the system, Farid never received any accolades from the state in Egypt.

Farid’s accomplishments did not go unnoticed internationally though, and after bagging the lifetime achievement awards from New Delhi and Dubai (in addition to the Cannes Film Festival Gold Medal) Farid earned last month the biggest honor of his career thus far: the Berlinale Camera award, alongside Australian Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush and Chinese producer Nansun Shi. Faird is the first Arab critic to receive the Berlin Film Festival’s most prestigious award, a recognition not only of film criticism, but of the growing influence of Arab cinema.

In Berlin, Farid spoke to Al Arabiya about the award, the development of Arab cinema and his fondest memories of his long and prosperous career.

Joseph Fahim: How do you feel about the Berlinale Camera award?
Samir Farid: It’s a great feeling to know that all my hard work did not go to waste. There are still many books I haven’t read, and many films I’m yet to watch, and as long as I breathe, I’ll always try to mend this gap. I’ve never been nominated for state awards in Egypt, even from the Academy of Arts from which I graduated, but I don’t feel bitter. I’m simply overjoyed with the Berlinale Camera.

JF: This honor arrives at a time when criticism around the world is thought to be dying.
SF: Criticism will never die. There’s a great need for criticism because without it, chaos in film and all other art forms shall ensue. There are tens of thousands of art-works produced around the world every year, and people need guidance in filtering this massive content. Criticism is not dying, it’s changing.

JF: What’s your assessment of Arab film criticism today?
SF: Arab film criticism is sophisticated, powerful and influential, especially in Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco. It may not be as impactful as it should be on viewers and readers, but it surely has a substantial influence on filmmakers.

JF: How do you assess filmmaking in the Arab World now?
SF: Arab cinema has significantly improved over the past decade, especially in full-length feature documentaries. Documentaries are no longer rare; their exhibition is no longer restricted to cinema clubs or culture centers. They now occupy a place in the film market, and that’s a very important development.

There is no shortage of talents in the region, but there’s still a problem in the relationship of political regimes and cinema. Arab regimes do not respect cinema enough, an attitude that reflect their outlook at their societies at large. This lack of respect is best manifested in their disregard for protection of film heritage. At the same time, they’re always apprehensive about the far-reaching influence of cinema on the public. Legislations neither back up or protect the filmmakers’ rights, nor the audience’s.

JF: In the long course of your career, what are your fondest memories, or proudest moments?
SF: Given the length of my career, I naturally have numerous fond memories. I still can’t forget the 20th edition of the Cannes Film Fest, which marked my first trip outside Egypt in 1967. I also still remember the longest trip I’ve ever embarked on, which took me to Tunis, Moscow, Tashkent, Leipzig and Paris. That was a transformative trip. At one point, I lived in an average neighborhood in Moscow to decide on my position towards communism, and I came to the realization that whoever sells his freedom for anything loses everything.

JF: How can an Arab film critic work freely under the authoritarian regimes of the region? Does a free writer represent a threat to authority?
SF: Everywhere and throughout history, the relationship between critics, artists and the governing authority has always been a central problem obstructing liberty, requiring plenty of trickery to snatch freedom. As Joyce wrote in “Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man”, the three arms of defense are “silence, exile and cunning.” For artists and critics alike, that remains the modus operandi for fighting for freedom.
 

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