The passing of Ali Abu Shadi, one of the pillars of film criticism in Egypt, at the age of 72 is a major loss to the community.
Abu Shadi earned a BA in the arts from Ain Shams University in 1966, and a postgraduate diploma in criticism from the Academy of Arts in 1975. Abu Shadi held numerous major posts in the state including secretary of the Higher Council of Culture (2007-2009), a position second only to the that of the minister of culture, overseeing various arms of the cultural establishment: the Cultural Development Fund, the Plastic Arts Sector, the Censorship Authority, the Cultural Production Sector.
His career started when he was appointed editor of the state-supported magazine Cinema (1975-1983), published by the Popular Culture (now Cultural Palaces) arm of the ministry, whose brief is to provide free or affordable cultural products – stage plays, film screenings and book sales – to even the remotest villages, and which Abu Shadi would later head (1999-2001).
Abu Shadi also headed the National Centre of Cinema (2001-2008), in which capacity he managed to resume some of the centre’s previously discontinued activities, notably the Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentary and Short Films (which had not been held since 1994), which he headed until 2010. He was also head of the National Film Festival (1998-2010), secretary of the Higher Festivals Committee (2001-2008) and, most notably, perhaps, Head Censor (twice: 1996-1999; and 2004-2009).
He had refused to accept the post in the 1980s – when from within the establishment he fought the decision to ban Atef Al-Tayib’s The Innocent (1986), in which the hero played by Ahmed Zaki openly and persuasively condemns the government and other repressive bodies – rejecting censorship altogether, but now he felt he could play a constructive role in mediating between artists and the state.
In 2005, indeed, he convinced then Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni to let him screen The Innocent uncut as part of the effort to honour Zaki. Many filmmakers and artists felt secure with a major critic and a strong and knowledgable intellectual like Shadi at the head of the Censorship Authority.
Abu Shadi himself once explained how he rescued Said Hamed’s comedy The President’s Cook, starring Talaat Zakareya as the cook and Khaled Zaki as the president. Lotfi Labib was to play the president’s right hand man (a possible reference to then head of the presidential office under Hosni Mubarak, Zakareya Azmi), a rather hateful character. By persuading Hamed to replace Labib with Ashraf Zaki playing a more sympathetic character, in an intelligent move only someone of his experience and confidence could master, Abu Shadi managed to make the film safe and pass it.
Abu Shadi was a prolific writer, producing dozens of quality books on cinema that chronicled and analysed, among other works, documentary films of the 1970s, the history of Egyptian cinema (1895-1994), Egyptian film classics and trends of the aughts.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly
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