IMAGINE. A shitty day in the loud, aggressive city you adore and deplore. You’re trying to work out a mess of impossible problems in your head when suddenly, in a place of some eighteen million people, you see someone you know. In fact, someone you once loved. And seeing her now, sitting alone in a café across the street, you realize you still love her. And so shitty is your day that you think, what the hell, and you call her. And then, holding the phone hopeful to your ear, you wait, feeling better already, about to smile at the sound of her voice. Or not. Because what happens next? She looks at her phone, spins it around, and lets it ring, her face clouded by a storm of emotions you won’t know. She doesn’t answer, and all you can do is watch while knowing that she would rather ignore you than see you, hear you, or share with you a serendipitous moment in the life of this grand, hopeless city of Cairo.
This scene transpires about halfway through Tamer El-Said’s majestic new film, In the Last Days of the City, a lionhearted elegy for the Egyptian capital, artistic heritage in the Arab world, inspired politics, and hope itself. It isn’t the emotional linchpin of the film. But it is emblematic of Said’s method, setting dramatic events in motion without any direct dialogue whatsoever, and it exemplifies the kind of everyday urban sorrow that layers the narrative and lends texture to the plot.
The basics of the story are these: Khalid, a stand-in for Said and the second-person protagonist above, is working on a film he can’t finish and looking for an apartment he can’t find. In that sense, In the Last Days of the City follows the classic structure of an absurdist search. Khalid, played by the British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla, rakes through hours of footage with his increasingly frustrated editor, trying to fit a puzzle of scenes and story lines together. His mother is ill, his father has died, he lost his sister years ago, and his girlfriend Laila—the one we see dodging his call in the café, played by Laila Samy—has left him and plans to leave Egypt altogether as soon as she can. Every apartment he visits with an informal realtor is a wreck, except for one, which everyone admits only a criminal could afford. As Said’s film progresses, Khalid slowly dismantles his own apartment, the one he has to leave at the end of the month, like a man unraveling his brain.
With enormous windows opening onto the splendor of the Nile, the space is a real beauty as far as belle époque Cairene dwellings go. And under the guise of packing up a life’s worth of belongings, Said orchestrates a parade of photographs, cameras, and other image-making tools going into stacks, piles, and boxes. As events unfold and Khalid’s sadness begins to overwhelm his body, the physical deconstruction of the apartment becomes a larger, more consequential, and possibly generational dance of despair. In the Last Days of the City is certainly effective as a love story. It captures in atmospheric fragments the feel of a romance pulling apart. But the film is also an extremely precise and deeply moving enactment of a much bigger story—about what has happened in the last hundred years or so to Egypt and the Arab world, its artists especially.
The disparate materials of Khalid’s film—which is essentially the same as Said’s, blending his own footage with a series of video missives sent to him by friends and colleagues—all tend to concern creators of some kind: a calligrapher, a composer, the founder of a roving theater troupe. As he sits in front of an editing screen we see, over his shoulder, a world of actors, dancers, writers, and fellow filmmakers forming a loose composite portrait of cultural life in a perilous time and place. That almost all of them are trying (but finding it difficult) to mourn—for a father killed in a fire; for a home lost in Alexandria—tugs at the pervasive, epochal sense of melancholy that is at stake here, five years after the start of the Arab spring and the ill-fated Egyptian revolution, in a film that has taken Said nearly a decade to make.
In the Last Days of the City premiered in February as part of the Berlin International Film Festival. It screened in the Forum and won the Caligari Prize. This month, it travels to New York for the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center. But the film is set back in December 2009, and most of it was shot around that time too. Which is to say, a full year before the twenty-six-year-old vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the streets of a Tunisian city to protest the lack of jobs and social justice, setting off a chain of protest movements that for one hopeful season swept across North Africa and the Middle East.
Said had started working on his film two years earlier. He cowrote the script with the Beirut-based writer and curator Rasha Salti, and the result of their collaboration is a gorgeously fractured text that sounds like a present-day version of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, in Arabic. Where Pessoa wrote a kaleidoscopic requiem for early-twentieth-century Lisbon, Said and Salti have turned to Baghdad (destroyed by invasion, occupation, and insurgency), Beirut (battered by a fifteen-year-long civil war that continues, in a way, by other means), and Cairo (which, at the time of their writing, was creaking under the weight of Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year dictatorship).
The breakup of Khalid and Laila may give the film its spine, but its heart is the story of four friends: Khalid in Cairo, Bassem (Bassem Fayad) in Beirut, Hassan (Hayder Helo) in Baghdad, and Tarek (Basim Hajar), also from Baghdad but now living in Berlin, with a refugee card that allows him to travel anywhere in the world, except home to Baghdad (which would void his asylum status). All are filmmakers, and after what appears to be many years of far-flung friendship, they are reunited for a conference on cinema in Cairo. The scenes of them squeezed around a café table, arguing on a rooftop, and circling the statues of downtown are pure magic. The four of them banter and bicker, pose painful questions (if only to film the responses), test out provocative ideas, share the plots and subjects of potential new films, and tussle each other warmly. Their camaraderie gives full expression to a fragile proposition: that the ardor among artists for these old Arab cities isn’t only a reflection of war in the present or nostalgia for the past, that it’s an expression of love forged through art and work, through the exchange among friends of composed images and recorded sounds that somehow document the lives of their place.
As a work in progress, In the Last Days of the City won a rush of early production grants and festival prizes. But Said seemed to struggle mightily to finish it. In 2011, I saw him speak on a conference not unlike the one portrayed in the film, and I would guess that the whole thing nearly killed him. Consider the context: As the film was under way, protesters toppled Mubarak’s regime, the Muslim Brotherhood had a quick and disastrous run of the country, massacres occurred, infrastructure crumbled, and, most maddeningly of all, Egypt emerged even more authoritarian than it had been. In the latest season alone, the government of Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has jailed a novelist for writing a perfectly enjoyable sex scene and, far more damningly, sentenced a four-year-old boy to life in prison for murder and rioting. The temptation to acknowledge and incorporate these events must have been tremendous. It is to Said’s great credit that he didn’t touch them. The film remains fixed in its place, true to itself.
In the Last Days of the City falls in line with a number of films about film, or about what it means to record the world and capture the unexpected, from Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). There’s also a great nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). But the underlying inspirations are the three cities holding the four filmmakers captive. Cairo is a disaster, says Bassem. Beirut is a whore. Baghdad is the worst off of them all. When Tarek tells Hassan: “Don’t pay the price of war, don’t pay for dictatorship, don’t pay for Baghdad,” Hassan responds: “Baghdad isn’t a street, a song, an alley, my family, or my mother. Baghdad is a moment. You feel it; then it goes. I can’t live outside it.”
I won’t spoil the plot, but in a film that is so much about stasis, something major does happen, and when it does, it’s utterly tragic. I had to remind myself that although it looks like a documentary, it isn’t. How that tragedy is conveyed shows how meticulously and intricately the film has been made. One layer gives meaning to another. The glitches where sound and image seem to slip away from each other create incredible dramatic tension. Talk of a senseless death early on means it will come to pass terribly, eventually. The violence of the world turns the intimacy of love inside out. Art is something to live for and, in certain extreme circumstances, to die for too.
But just so you know, before the film ends? She calls back. All that comes of it is sadness, but she does call back.
In the Last Days of the City has its US premiere March 26 and 27 as part of “New Directors/New Films” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.