Jumana Farouky does not fit the stereotypical image of the cranky middle-aged largely mustachioed film critic. As a young exuberant female she is helping infuse the ideas of a new generation of critics. Jumana envisioned writing about rock music, but found more comfort and creative expression in writing passionately about films for Time Europe.
CCB: What is your first recollection of going to the movies?
JF: When I was about six, my family lived in Bahrain where every summer some of the hotels would set up outdoor cinemas. Nothing fancy, just a white screen, some chairs and a second-run film in the projector, usually on the deck of the swimming pool. But I can’t tell you how excited I got when I knew we were going to see a movie…waiting for the sun to go down was torture. So the first film I actually remember watching was Superman II (Back then, it took years for a film to reach cinemas in the Middle East, and even longer before they were shown in the open-air theaters). Sitting underneath a clear starry sky in a rickety plastic fold-out chair, munching on popcorn and watching Superman save the planet while the cool wind blew across my face – bliss!
CCB: When did you realize that films meant more to you than simple entertainment?
JF: It was 1986, I was ten—I was watching Stand By Me and crying my eyes out. Not once, not twice, but five times: once for every time one of the main characters starts blubbing and again at the end. That was the first time a film really moved me. I felt like I actually knew these guys, like this was a film that really understood me. And that’s when I discovered that films could go deeper, that there was more to cinema than comedy chuckles or horror film screams.
CCB: When did you first attempt a film review? How did you go about crafting it?
JF: I was an intern at the Boston Phoenix, an alternative newsweekly, the year before I started working there for real. I’d gone in thinking this would be the first step on the path to my dream career – as a music critic. All through college and journalism school I was convinced I was going to write about rock for a living. I was always a film fan, but didn’t think I knew enough about it – the theory, the logistics, the history – to write about it. So I bugged the music editor at the paper to let me write a review. He asked for 200 words on the latest album by The Sundays. And it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. I just couldn’t figure out how to describe what I was hearing. After I went through three different versions for a very patient editor, I thought maybe music criticism wasn’t my calling.
Not to be out-done, I turned to the film editor. He threw me a small review – The Education of Little Tree – and it was so much more fun to write. I figured I could handle doing this for a living. But, it being my first film review, I tackled it differently than I would now if I had to write it again. Basically I looked at all the elements – the acting, the soundtrack, the cinematography, the script and the story – and boiled each down to a few sentences, saying what I liked and what I didn’t. It came out alright, but a bit too unfocussed for my liking.
CCB: Have you been able to use your English and Journalism degrees in your writing?
JF: You certainly don’t NEED a degree in English or Journalism (or anything, really) to do what I do, but I know they’ve helped me along the way. At the most basic level, my classes were where I learned to write and fast. Being able to write a specified amount (whether it’s words or pages) and on deadline – essential skills. That’s where I also developed my writing style, my voice. I also learned how to translate the thoughts in my head into words on the page. Sounds simplistic, but a lot of reviewing is about being able to describe intangibles like feelings, sounds, the quality of light or the impact of a color. Doing that without resorting to cliché or over-using metaphor isn’t easy.
It’s also handy to have a good sense of literature, since so much of cinema comes from or is inspired by it. And probably the most useful lesson I got was from my arts criticism professor, who made us critique a play, a book, a movie, and an album. He told us to focus on one or two things that stand out the most about whatever you’re critiquing, instead of trying to write about everything. I wouldn’t write my Education of Little Tree review the same way again. I probably would’ve focused on its handling of Western values vs. indigenous ones…and on how darned cute the kid in the lead role was.
CCB: During the review process do you try and find the positives describing a film that you do not enjoy?
JF: Yes, I do, because I know how difficult it is to make a movie and nobody (Well, almost nobody) makes a film knowing it’s going to be a stinker. So I try to find at least one compliment. But sometimes even that is impossible. (And, to be honest, writing a negative review can be lots of fun.)
CCB: Why can writing a negative review be fun?
JF: Just because it really gives you a chance to use your imagination and let loose a little. I spend so much time looking for different variations on the words "good" and "pretty", it's nice to be able to use some of the nastier words every once in a while.
CCB: Do you have a method that you adhere to when putting together your ideas for your writing? Does this process differ depending on reviews versus interviews?
JF: It depends on what I’m writing. If I’m getting ready to write a review, I’ll desperately avoid all other articles and reviews written on the film. Just don’t want to take the chance that what others say might influence my opinion. I also try not to talk about it with anyone else who might have seen it. Basically, I become a shut-in. If I’m writing a feature or a profile, I do the opposite: research, research, research – reading everything I can find on the subject, and, if possible, seeing all the films an actor or director has done before I talk to him/her. Then I pretty much look at everything I’ve got (or, in the case of a review, look at a blank Word document) and start with what I think is the most interesting thing about the person/topic/film. I try to anticipate any questions the reader might ask and try to answer them and, most of all, try to be entertaining.
CCB: Have you had any mentors along the way? If so can you explain the benefits of mentoring?
JF: I consider one of the editors here, senior editor James Geary, a mentor. He agreed to let me write my first film review for the website three years ago, even before he'd read my writing. That kind of blind faith can do a lot for a writer's confidence. Since then, he's been a very keen editor, with equal amounts praise and constructive (only ever constructive!) criticism. He's really helped me learn how to organize a story and figure out what writing style fits in with Time, while also helping me develop my own voice. It's a real treat to have someone around who can teach you things without being preachy, who can play up your strengths and help you fix your weaknesses, who can just be there if you need to bounce ideas off of someone or grumble about something.
CCB: Please tell me about your spiritual connection to the film American Pie.
JF: First of all, I thought it was just hilarious -- start to finish, didn't take a wrong step. The characters were so well drawn, each of them was kind of a caricature, but then still real enough that I could remember knowing people like them in high school. As far as I was concerned, it took teen comedy a step up, challenging those after it to be just a bit smarter, edgier and funnier.
I’d been writing reviews for The Boston Phoenix for about six months and even though I was having fun, there was always this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that, without any formal film schooling or any kind of film theory study and only being in my mid-20s, maybe I had no real right to be a film critic. Then I was asked to review American Pie and as soon as the lights went up in the cinema I knew this film would be a cult classic. I said so in my review and – ta da – it became one! So this was the first time when I realized that maybe, just maybe, I knew what the hell I was talking about. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every once in a while I don’t worry that I might have missed something, especially when I think a film stinks and suddenly everyone’s writing positive reviews (eg. Wimbledon. Awful film, great reviews, do they know something I don’t know?)
CCB: Do you have favorite films that the general public should see if they haven’t?
JF: Off the top of my head:
12 Angry Men (The original with Henry Fonda, not the remake with Tony Danza)
Dumb and Dumber
Punch Drunk Love
Memories of Murder (South Korean murder mystery)
Stand By Me
Some Like it Hot
There’s tons more, but let’s move on…
CCB: What films do you consider near perfect?
JF: On the huge, blockbuster end, I think the Lord of the Rings trilogy does pretty much everything a film should do: thrills, engages, enchants, moves. Makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you cheer. (Only problem is the over-long ending, could have done with one conclusion instead of three). On the smaller, quieter end, 12 Angry Men is stunning in its simplicity. It’s all about the acting, the character development – no scene changes, no effects, nothing fancy. But it still manages to be utterly engaging.
CCB: Are there filmmakers whose work you generally anticipate seeing?
JF: Coen Brothers, Soderbergh, Spielberg (Even though I might not always like what he does), Pedro Almodovar, Alejandro Amenabar, Lukas Moodysson, anything from the French co-writing team of Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri.
CCB: Do you have any “guilty pleasure” films?
JF: Plenty, but the ones I’ll admit to: Dumb and Dumber, Never Been Kissed (In fact, anything with Drew Barrymore in it is a guilty pleasure of mine), the Nightmare on Elm Street films.
CCB: Why must some films be guilty pleasures? I mean if we connect with them why should we apologize?
JF: You certainly don't HAVE to apologize, but I kind of like the idea of having a "dirty little secret," a film that you know isn't high on the Best Films of All Time list, but that you still absolutely love...and want to keep it all to yourself.
CCB: What advice do you have for people aspiring to be film critics?
JF: The best advice is to just watch a lot of films. I think the best way to understand what filmmakers are doing today is to look at what filmmakers were doing 10, 30, 50 years ago – not so you can look clever by comparing Alien vs Predator with the work of Ed Wood, but so you can put everything in context. Watch the films that today’s directors would have watched and been influenced by.
It’s also handy to have a specialty, whatever it is: films of the 80s, Hitchcock, silent films, anything. I’m still building one myself, although I know a fair bit more about horror films than most, so that’s a start. And, most importantly, don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t focus on making a reader’s mind up about a film – write about the film honestly, being informative and entertaining, and let them make up their own minds.
As for advice on how to make a living writing -- if you're asking as many people as I did when I thought about becoming a writer, you're probably getting a gazillion different answers. And half of them probably said what I'm about to say: I just fell into it. Okay, not exactly...but sort of. I did indeed study Journalism for my Master's degree, but before that I did English and Mass Communications at Boston College, which is where it all started. Got an internship with alternative Boston weekly The Boston Phoenix and about three months into it finally got up the courage to ask the film editor if I could write a review. After that came a bit more writing, then Journalism school, then a bit of freelancing at the Phoenix, then an editorial assistant's job where I willingly -- some would even say enthusiastically -- agreed to review all the crappy teen comedies, teen romance and teen horror films.
Then I came to London and ended up at Time purely by luck -- a colleague at the Phoenix knew someone here who was looking for interns. So again I started as an intern and again sheepishly asked to be allowed to write something. First I got unpaid work on the website, then paid work in the magazine. And it just grew from there. At the same time, I tried cold calling other film magazines to see if they needed freelancers and found it nigh on impossible and quite frustrating. If you can get a job at a local paper, I'd say that's definitely you're best bet -- smaller paper means smaller staff means more chances for you to offer your services, show your skills and knowledge and write what you want to write. (Plus, of course, stuff you don't want to write, that's the way it goes).
Also look for film and entertainment guide websites that might be looking for writers -- they usually don't pay but as I'm sure you know, poor and penniless is pretty much par for the course this early in the game. Once you've gotten three or four published clips under your belt, building up a portfolio -- older stuff at the back, newer stuff in the front you could try sending them out to magazines you like and newspapers you read to see if they need freelancers. If you want to do reviews, be prepared to accept anything. If you want to do features, be prepared to come up with a handful of good feature ideas to pitch to them. And keep trying. Even if you get rejected, wait a few months, build up more clips and send your most recent stuff again. Or you could stay at the local paper, become their film editor and one day field a call from Variety asking you to be their East Coast critic. You never know.
Fact is, there are so many different ways to do this, but I reckon if you start small you can learn more and build up contacts while you grow more confident in your writing. The one thing I can tell you is that it may be difficult to get in, but once you're in -- once you're writing for someone on a regular basis -- it's really easy to stay there. And, more often than not, it's a whole load of fun, too.
CCB: What does it feel like the first time one of your reviews is published?
JF: It’s wonderful and terrifying at the same time. Wonderful because you know that other people, maybe hundreds or thousands of them, who don’t know you will get to read what you’ve written. And terrifying because those people are going to be judging your work and they won’t be quite as nice about your writing as your friends or your mom might be.
CCB: What would people be surprised to learn about film criticism?
JF: You don’t spend your day sifting through hate-mail from angry directors. Very few directors care about reviews, let alone read them, and even fewer complain to critics about them. But they’re out there and I’m sure one day I’ll run into one.
CCB: Why do some publications spoil movie viewings for the public by telling too much in their reviews?
JF: Either because a) they’re idiots or b) it’s an essential part of discussing the film. Most try their best not to reveal a surprise ending, but if they have to, they usually warn you before you get to the important part (it’s called a “spoiler” and if you don’t want to know what happens in a film, stop reading once you see that word). But sometimes to really get into a film and to help readers understand your opinion, it’s necessary to reveal the twist. Readers who want to really get into the meat of a film don’t mind knowing what happens in it – they’ll probably see it anyway – and readers who don’t can just stop reading. At least until after they’ve seen the movie.
CCB: You do not fit the stereotypical image of a film critic, as a woman and a young person. You are a welcome addition. Why do you think a lot of film critics tend to be middle-aged men? Is it a “boys club”?
JF: It is, but it’s changing – there are more women writing about film now than there were ten years ago and most of the screenings I go to have audiences that are evenly split between men and women. Maybe it’s just that men find it easier to be brutal when it comes to criticism, so they get noticed. When a woman gets harsh – like film critic legend Pauline Kael – she stands out. Honestly, I don’t know either, although I’ve often asked myself the same question. As to why most critics are older, that’s because, as I mentioned above, it helps to have a history of film behind you to draw from. And the best way to watch more and learn more about films than the person sitting next to you is to live longer.
CCB: What makes a great film critic?
JF: It’s a mixture of writing talent and info sharing. A great film critic will be able to make you look at a film in a different way, tell you something you didn’t know about it and entertain you all at the same time.
CCB: How has your writing changed since you began?
JF: I used to try to cram all the aspects of a film into one review, while now I focus on one or two stand-out points. I’m also more careful about bad-mouthing a film without trying to find a good point first. Some films are beyond redemption, true, but making films is hard, so I’ve got to work hard to find something positive to say.
CCB: What has been the coolest moment so far on the job? (Something that you still cannot believe you witnessed.)
JF: I wish I had a boatload of fantastic stories to tell you, but this job’s relatively quiet and surprise-free. Especially on the criticism side, since I don’t do much except watch films and then write about them (I have seen some films that I can’t even believe got made, but I don’t think that’s what you mean). But since I’ve also interviewed film people – directors, actors, writers – there’s more opportunity for strange stuff to happen. Although the weirdest thing I’ve seen yet was probably when I followed around Bollywood’s No. 1 star, Shah Rukh Khan, for three days. He’s adored by millions upon millions of people, he does live shows to audiences of thousands all the time, he makes four films a year, the man’s a super-duper star and when we were talking he was really friendly, talkative, and really confident. But when I went with him to a photo shoot, he became a completely different person – very nervous, constantly twitching and looking away from the camera. At one point he was sitting on a couch and spent most of the time with his head buried in a pillow. Turns out he may be one of the world’s most famous faces on film, but he’s also incredibly shy when it comes to having his picture taken. It was just strange to see someone so firmly in the public eye shy away from a camera like that. Bizarre.
CCB: What are your future career aspirations, do they extend beyond film criticism?
JF: As far as the film industry goes, no, not really. I once thought I wanted to go into production or screenwriting, but that’s passed now. I would like to move further into writing profiles – not just of film folk, but of people in general. I love sitting down and talking to someone for a long time, getting to know them (or, at least little bits of them) and then trying to pin them down on paper. It’s a real challenge and I enjoy it.