Is it possible to capture the essence of a city in a film? Director Tamer El Said's film "In the Last Days of the City" attempts to do just that.
The film was shown at the Lowe Auditorium in the Black Family Visual Arts Center this past Saturday after an introduction by professor Tarek El-Ariss, Middle Eastern Studies department chair, and a preface by director Tamer El Said. Following the film, the two held a Q&A for the audience.
"In the Last Days of the City" started shooting in 2008 but was not released until eight years later in 2016, to wide international acclaim. The film follows protagonist Khalid, a filmmaker in the middle of an all-consuming documentary project, in his home city of Cairo. Khalid struggles with many problems in his personal life: he needs a new apartment, his mother is in the hospital for an unknown ailment, and the love of his life is leaving Egypt and ignores his calls. His three best friends, other filmmakers living in Beirut, Baghdad and Berlin, respectively, send him footage of their home cities to help him finish his own project on Cairo. These friendships underpin the relationship Cairo has with other cities in the Middle East and beyond.
"Cities are not insular, are not self-contained," El-Ariss said. "They are connected to other cities both in the Middle East and outside the Middle East."
However, the city, not the actors, is the main character, and character drama takes a side seat to the action of the city. Through centering the film on the life of just one man, El Said makes Cairo real to the viewer by exemplifying how the city has a tangible effect on its residents, these residents are also an integral thread in the fabric of the city itself. There is a contract between resident and city where neither can exist without the other.
The film is set in the larger context of the Arab Spring. According to El Said, all the shooting occurred before the revolution in Egypt, but the editing occurred after, giving the film unique hindsight. While El Said said he wanted to stay true to the nature of Cairo at the time of shooting, there's an unmistakable sense of political freefall and uncertainty underpinning the film. He captures Cairo on the edge of something radical — what, we are not sure, but the viewer leaves with a feeling of Egypt's impending chaos.
"It's not a film about the revolution," El Said said. "It's a film about the moment before. It was very exhausting, but also very inspiring to live [in] the moment of the revolution in reality while living [in] the moment before [the revolution] in the film. It allowed me to look at the moment of the revolution in a different way. These two moments were in dialogue, all the time."
As a resident of Cairo who lives in both Cairo and Berlin, El Said is uniquely positioned to comment on the theme of displacement. The film opens with Khalid looking for a new apartment with his clueless real estate agent. Even from the beginning, it feels unstable. Khalid doesn't really have a home base. Later on, one of Khalid's friends from Baghdad decides to seek political asylum in Berlin, while another friend also living in Baghdad decides to stay there, even amidst the violence. There's an obvious moral dilemma here: to abandon your home or to stay despite the risk. While moving physically displaces a person, it also emotionally and morally displaces them as well. El Said's film explores the meaning of home and how it shapes our identity and experience. Can a person be themselves without home? Can Khalid be himself without Cairo?
El-Ariss commented on this theme of displacement, saying that it translates across many major cities in the Middle East, connecting Cairo to places like Beirut and Baghdad. El-Ariss added that unintentionally, displacement has become the theme of much of the Middle Eastern studies department's programming this year.
Middle Eastern Studies senior lecturer El Mostafa Ouajjani also commented on this theme of displacement, explaining how some of his own students connected the same theme to the larger context of the modern Middle East.
"Cairo epitomizes the Arab city. It's deteriorating; it's losing its identity," Ouajjani said. "And [the students] said that the fact that Khalid in the movie was looking for an apartment [meant that] he was looking for a home; he was without identity, he doesn't feel at home in the city."
Ouajjani believed his students that saw the film were able to draw on its central themes to contextualize not only the Egyptian uprisings and the Arab Spring, but also to gain a better understanding of Arab film and art. In this way, the film provides viewers with a political and cultural experience, as well as a sensory one.
El-Ariss commented that the film is just one way that the new Middle Eastern Studies department is bringing the reality of the Middle East to Hanover. By bringing filmmakers, authors, artists and other prominent figures to campus, the department is participating in a cross-national dialogue and provides opportunities for students to do the same.
"I'm very excited about showing and bringing to our classrooms, to our auditoriums, to our performance centers, events and courses, authors and filmmakers that capture the modern Middle East that is undergoing momentous political and social changes," El-Ariss said.
The film is as much a soundscape as it is a visual landscape. There's the constant din of the city — cars honking, people yelling and street vendors selling flowers and balloons — but the real art comes in playing with volume. There are moments in the film where the background clamor lulls and we hear singing or plaintive instrumentals as Khalid enters more meditative moments, and there are other moments where Khalid is stressed and the noise of the city is so overwhelming we almost want to cover our ears. Again, El Said creates a relationship between the Khalid and Cairo, where the city mimics the man and the man mimics the city. The two are connected in a constant conversation. Khalid's perspective shapes his experience of Cairo as much as Cairo shapes him, and while the relationship is love-hate, it's also central to Khalid's identity.
"The idea is to make it a Cairo experience," El Said said. "That's why I think watching the film on a small screen is very different. The idea is to be inside the city and feel the vibes from the city and the visuals of the city, which is only offered if you are in a dark room with a big screen."
"In the Last Days of the City" took almost a decade to produce from first shot to release, but El Said said the time was absolutely necessary. El Said grew up in Cairo and said that the film was a way to visit and reckon with his own personal history. Editing down from over 200 hours of film to less than two was a daunting task, but it allowed El Said to choose the most necessary shots, not just the best ones.
El Said added that the editing process was a personal journey for him. He sees filmmaking as a way of life that allows him to discover more about himself and the city where he grew up, he said. He also commented on the necessity of discovering the film's final form without forcing it — the process must be organic, there cannot be a path; every film has its own pace. El Said said that in the end, the film was the best version he could make it.
"I learned, in the very early stages of the film, that the only way is to surrender," El Said said. "You can't impose something [on the film]. I had to stop myself from having an image and imposing it on the city, I did the opposite. I started with an empty head and allowed the city to produce its image, and I took it and built on it."
Ultimately, El Said had to surrender the film to Cairo itself as an entity. While fictional, "In the Last Days of the City" feels like a documentary in style and content, are the lines between fiction and reality really as strict as they seem? It's often said that art imitates life. What if, instead, art is life and a film can be as real as a city itself?