“IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY” directed by Tamer el Said (Egypt)
(Nominated in APSA’s Cultural Diversity Award, under patronage of UNESCO)
There is an experience of immersion while watching this melancholy and poetic film.
A young film-maker , 35 year old Khalid, living in Cairo, is struggling with all that is happening in his world, and with finding a way to convey the situation in his beloved city. He collaborates sometimes with several film-maker friends, who have already left the city, in an attempt to find the right way to tell his story. One friend has gone to Berlin, one to Beirut and another to Baghdad. To me that seems to refer to other suffering cities in the region, and to the end result, fleeing the region as a refugee.
He has an ex-girlfriend, Laila, who is about to leave too. And he is looking for a new apartment, but his real-estate agent is frustrated, because no place is ever suitable. This works as a metaphor for the fact that not only is he not comfortable in his apartment any more, – he is not comfortable in Cairo any more, even though it’s his beloved home. He wanders in the yellow-tinged world of the decaying and suffering city. The yellow color in the air, is from the desert dust that often blows over the city.
Tamer el Said says, ‘I don’t know where the film starts and my life ends. I see the yellow colour in Cairo all the time. This colour goes with a sense of loneliness.’
Old Ottoman era houses are being demolished, there is unrest in the streets, and everything feels wrong, wrong, wrong. The film is clearly autobiographical, and Tamer reveals his soul via his alter-ego, Khalid.
Tamer el Said explained, “The process of making the film is also the process of trying to understand himself, reflecting on many things. My main project is myself, although the film’s main “character” is the City. I call Cairo the city that made me who I am. I live in the flat seen in the film, and that is my local neighbourhood. The people in the streets and cafes are my actual neighbours. The filming took place over two years and ended in 2010, only six weeks before the Revolution. I wanted to be part of this change. The editing process was a kind of battle with a beast – 250 hours of footage. Then I worked for a year doing the sound and post production, with collaborators, my amazing crew. Sometimes I spent the whole day editing one scene, then walked in the streets and saw the same people who had been in the footage I’d been editing that day, although four years may have passed. Then I asked myself, ‘did something really change? How can we change anything without changing everything?’
He continued: ‘We grew up, used to experiencing loss and war around us. It shaped our lives and made us different from other people who grew up in Europe, for example. When travelling I realized that I get nervous when I see a police-man, because of my life-experience in Cairo. We cannot carry on like this – things have to change. The situation is no better under our new government, in terms of freedom of expression.’
Tamer is disillusioned with the results of the “change he wanted to be part of.” He was hoping for freedom and social justice.
Tamer el Said graduated in 1998, and has been making short films and documentaries. “In The Last Days of the City” is his first feature film. It has been a slow process and low budget too, because there is no funding for film-making from the government, and there is strict control over freedom of expression in Egypt. However the end result of his labour is one of the most profoundly moving and poetic films I have seen in many years.
Better than all the news bulletins and articles we read about what’s happening to people in Egypt and other countries in the area around the Middle East, this film expresses the wounds, the disappointment, the eternal hope for a better life for everyone in the surrounding region. It is so tragic to see such ancient lands and cultures, that have had rich cultures and days of glory, now feeling this endless pain. A study of history will show that a lot of this turmoil today, was actually caused by events at the end of the First World War… when the victorious Allies sat over maps deciding on how to carve up among themselves, the former lands of the recently collapsed Ottoman Empire, and beyond. Also, by more recent political actions from modern powers too, but that’s another story.
Note: This film did not win the award, which went to another exceptional film “The Dark Wind” by Hussein Hassan. (see my separate review)
By Cynthia Webb
Copyright, December 2016
photo of Tamer el Said, by Cynthia Webb
copyright December 2016