“IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY” (“Akher Ayam El Medina”)
Before the 2011 Revolution — A film by Tamer El Said
Tamer El Said’s “In the Last Days of the City”) (آخر أيام المدينة , Akher Ayam El Madina) was filmed during the hectic sociopolitical climate just before the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. In effect this film is an elegiac, self-reflexive tribute to the country’s historical capital city of Cairo and its fading grandeur. We see a collage of impressions and emotions and the documentary footage of the various ideological clashes taking place on the streets of the city are fascinating in that we see the sadness and memories etched on the faces of many of the characters, We get a string sense of despair and loss in the film-within-the-film. They help him communicate a sense of loss and despair.
The protagonist (British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla) is an impassive type who struggles to capture the pulse of the metropolis at a precarious moment in its evolution as he himself is dealing with his own personal issues. while battling many personal issues. El Said has filmed some 250 hours of material between 2008 and 2010. The passage of time filled with events since the revolution allows him to take a more critical stance toward his own work while giving the film a sense of melancholy and nostalgia.
The film is a haunting, lyrical chronicle of recent years in the Arab world where revolutions seemed to spark hope for change but actually create further instability. Khalid Abdalla is a filmmaker in Cairo attempting to capture the zeitgeist of his city as the world changes around him including his own changes from personal love and loss to the fall of the Mubarak regime. His friends send footage and stories from Berlin, Baghdad, and Beirut, creating a powerful, multilayered meditation on the meaning of homeland. The film’s multi-layered stories are a visually rich exploration of friendship, loneliness and life in cities shaped by the shadows of war and adversity.
Toward the end of the film, Khalid looks out of the window of his high-rise Cairo apartment and sees a man in a neighboring shantytown, roughing up a woman. Khalid grabs his camera, zooms in, and begins shooting; the subject immediately notices and begins yelling up to him. The divide between these two men is as much economic as it is physical, making for one of many moments wherein the film appears to be flaunting and bemoaning its own vantage point.
Khalid’s sense of detachment is like a privileged form of paralysis; wherever he goes, he finds material for an autobiographical documentary project, including interviews with his dying mother and telltale pieces of an ex-girlfriend (Laila Samy). We see Khalid’s endeavor as an incomplete flux, with ample scenes of him looking into the Final Cut Pro abyss on his laptop. Looking at a metropolis like Cairo from an first-person perspective, the film interrogates middle-class privilege in a time of crisis as a series of either-ors: leaving for Europe or staying in Cairo, hiding at home or protesting in the streets, filming blindly or seeking retrenchment. Cairo’s civil unrest steadily is always in the field of vision. We see protesters accusing then-President Hosni Mubarak of selling the country’s gas to Israel, yet a radio commentary speaks about Egypt’s continued dominance of the Africa Cup (perhaps a sly metaphor for Mubarak’s unchallenged three decades in power).
Khalid obsesses over his failed romance with Laila while wondering whether he even belongs in Cairo anymore. When he checks-ins with some filmmaker friends from Beirut and Baghdad, his listless perspective changes a bit— it foreshadows that even a city as storied as Cairo could—and, in fact, did—become something of a war zone. The real-life Khalid Abdalla put his acting career on hold to participate in the Tahrir Square uprising that saw Mubarak’s ouster, only to be outflanked by Egypt’s U.S.-backed military in a 2013 coup d’etat that saw mass retribution against Muslim Brotherhood members and (eventually) stabilized the country’s lopsided, export-heavy economy. The film shows historical hindsight and free association.
To put it plainly, the film is a moody, disturbing and poetic tale about a filmmaker in Cairo documenting the capital before the revolution. Emotions are quite raw here and the city is complex. It is, at times, difficult to watch— there is no restraint in depicting the states of feeling caused by the harsh realities of lives ravaged by perpetual wars. It is the cinematography that is key here: the collage of images of cityscapes and people interviewed by filmmaker Khalid that I mentioned earlier are intense. We see vignettes of human pain and contrasting values in the other cities that are crumbling around them. An interviewee tells about being kicked out her home of 60 years by developers, a friend from Baghdad describes how a child is taught to avoid stepping on corpses in the streets.
Because the film seems slightly disjointed and even incoherent at times, reality is intensified and we see that to live in such an environment could create a disorientation of thoughts and sensations. Turmoil seems everywhere because of incongruous westernization, military tyranny and a growing fundamentalist Islamic presence. There are ominous signs of future changes with protesters shouting “Islam is coming”, increasing images of street prayers and sounds of religious chanting. Here is a heartbreaking ode to Cairo and other beloved towns in the region and it is filled with enormous affection, wistful longing, anguish and regret: “The city is alive. We live in Cairo. It’s a siren.”
“The Last Days of the City” opens in NYC on April 27 and in Los Angeles on May 4th.