Few multi-layered narratives carry the weight of their subjects as sincerely as the film, In The Last Days of The City. It took Egyptian director Tamer El Said close to ten years to complete his film, which is shot in Cairo as well as Beirut and Baghdad. The feature is not one about borders and journeys but blurred boundaries and the struggle for belonging. It has won awards including the Grand Prix at the New Horizon International Film Festival and recently premiered in the UK at the London Film Festival on Sunday 9th October. In an interview with El Said and the British- Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla it is clear why In The Last Days of The City stands as testimony to a much-needed new wave of Arab Cinema.
Filmmaker protagonist Khalid (played by Abdalla) offers us a lens through which we see Cairo as he searches for a flat he never finds, the thread to his unfinished film and a love he has long lost. The suffering that exists throughout the narrative is so endured and controlled, that only Cairo's noise offers any audible release. The scenes in Downtown were filmed up until moments before the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and the toppling of President Mubarak's crippling regime.
It was bearing witness to the uncertainty surrounding Cairo prior to this that compelled El Said to film. He said: "On different levels, politically and socially it was clear that something big would happen, we couldn't carry on like this." Nevertheless El Said recalls his feelings towards change as mixed: "On one side you are longing for it to bring something different but on the other side you know it will take things from you that you love and you want to stay."
For Abdalla who has previously featured in The Kite Runner and United 93, the opportunity to become what he calls a "collaborator" in the film came as "a gift". He said: "It was a moment when as an actor I had begun my confrontation with the very charged world of what is means to occupy the Arab image on screen, what the Arab image means internationally and what it means in cinema."
The script remained fluid and authenticity was evidently at the heart of El Said's casting. He said: "I didn't want someone to repeat lines even if they can repeat them well, I want someone to add something from his soul to the character." Abdalla says that the role transformed his life in more way than one as he moved from London to live in Cairo for a subsequent eight years. He explained: "Everyone in the film plays a version of themselves except for me and Laila (played by Laila Samy). I played a version of who I would become… That way the film ended up ghosting you."
This is a film within a film that dances on the line, if there is one, between fiction and reality. El Said says: "It's not only about documentary and fiction, maybe it's more about spontaneity and structure and how you find the cinematic language in-between." The dedication from the actors is profound to say the least. One example is when El Said's own mother (Zeinab Mostafa) who plays Khalid's mother in the film, is sick at the time but allows him to film her in a moving hospital scene. Unfortunately she passed away during the making of the film and El Said spoke of the difficulty he had editing thereafter.
Throughout the film a radio voice brings news of destruction and political developments from the rest of the Middle East reminding us how inter-connected events are. Also experiencing displacement and identity issues are El-Said's close friends in the film Bassem (played by Bassem Fayad) from Beirut and Hassan (played by Hayder Helo) from Baghdad. El Said explained: "We are the first Arab film that was shot in Baghdad after the occupation." Due to a lack of funds during filming in Iraq the cast and crew had to adapt accordingly. "Instead of staying in the protected Green Zone of Baghdad we had to stay in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city but I think Baghdad is one of the most kind and warm cities in the world," said El Said.
There is much beauty in the love-hate-relationship that exists between the characters and their cities. Abdalla explains that the helpless state his character embodies is one affecting people everywhere. He describes it as: "A sense that has rippled across the world that things just can't carry on like this. But somehow they do and we don't know what to do about it."
The film is an act of rebellion in content, style and execution. It also exists as an ongoing challenge to the distribution crisis that limits Arab films from being seen within, as well as outside, the region. It is estimated that there are roughly 980 cinema screens for 300 million people across the Arab region, which as Abdalla reminds us, is less then there are in Poland.
The benefit of hindsight when watching the film offers a list of ironies in Egypt's case that continues to grow. The script's foresight is palpable but who could have known that the scenes filmed on Tahrir Square would soon become the focus of the world's attention? It was a bold decision to stop filming in the weeks prior to the revolution. In doing so, the film remains timeless and worthy of all the anticipation it holds, in the last days of the city before everything changed.
In The Last Days of The City will be screening at Film Africa on 5 November at the ICA.