ISTANBUL, Turkey — Cairo is a city that has for millennia captured the imagination of artists. In the Last Days of the City is Tamer El Said’s ode to his hometown. It portrays the Egyptian capital at a specific point in its rich and fraught history in the years that immediately preceded the 2011 Egyptian uprising.
The poignant and humorous film tells the story of a filmmaker struggling to complete his film and his relations with his friends and his ailing mother. El Said conceived the film in 2006, but didn’t begin shooting until the end of 2008. It was released in 2016.
At the time of filming, Hosni Mubarak was in power in Egypt; by the time the film wrapped in December 2010, his position was tenuous. Indeed, protests against the Egyptian president would erupt in January 2011, leading to his resignation and a military takeover in February 2011.
El Said's film has just garnered two awards at !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival’s !f Inspired International Competition: the Critics Award and the SIYAD (Film Critics Association of Turkey) Award. TRT World’s Melis Alemdar caught up with the director in Istanbul.
‘In the Last Days of the City’ is your first fiction film. How did you decide to make a film about Cairo, and what elements did you use to capture the essence of the city?
TAMER EL SAID: I live in Cairo. It’s the city that made me who I am. So I will say I’m someone shaped by living in Cairo. And I think this is the most — the biggest influence in all my life. That [said], I’m also interested in the urban experience, how we as individuals are dealing with this context of urban living and the city experience.
Cairo is a big city full of contradictions. I live in downtown Cairo. When you live in a city like Cairo, you always ask yourself questions about your relation[ship] to the city, about your relation[ship] to everything existing around you. Also back [in those] years — I’m talking about 2006 and onwards — I had this big question about what [was] coming, and how we can carry on in a situation like this, and what our responsibilities as individuals [were] in this context when everything around you is falling apart.
And you have this kind of a love-hate relationship that everyone has with his or her city. So it was — you know, you don’t decide to make a film. There is an urge to make a film. And without this urge, you can’t make it. So actually I didn’t choose. You know, I feel the film is always coming from an urge; that you feel that you cannot continue without making it.
So yeah, it was this very peculiar feeling and all [this wondering] about how can we continue. [Aside from] my personal experience and the challenge that was the most captivating thing, is the challenge of telling [the story of] a city in a film. And the city — and any city, especially a big city like Cairo — it has many layers that [are] super-sophisticated and super-complicated. How can you stay loyal to this sophistication of this urban experience in a film of two hours?
What would the film be like if it were made today? How has the city been transformed since it was shot? Because you shot it in 2009, right?
Now it’s a different context; this big event happened already, five [or] six years ago. And we still, in a moment of trying to understand what happened, analyse it and see it from a different perspective. I would say also back [in those] days within the political situation it was very… it was kind of a mission impossible to make this film. But even if it was almost impossible, this didn’t stop me [from] trying to make the film.
But today I think the film, the way it was shot, is impossible because the whole context has changed. It took me 10 years to be able to finish the film, to fight against all the conditions that’s stopping you [from] achieving what you want. But now maybe it will take me fifty [years to make a film], so it’s a completely different situation.
I also think that we still need to understand what happened in a deeper way and to reflect on it. And I’m not sure when we will be ready to make something about what happened over the last six years.
Khalid is struggling with many things at once: the loss of his father, the illness of his mother, breaking up with his girlfriend, having to move out of his apartment… How is he able to find the motivation to keep going?
TES: Yeah I think this is exactly what the film is trying to reflect [on]. For me what makes Khalid a very cinematic character is the fact he’s stuck between a past that is very heavy on his shoulders, a present that is very suffocating and a future that he cannot see. Every time he tries to find his way, it’s always blocked. And for me, deep inside, I see a lot of strength — his path is a path of realisation of what counts in life. And then these things that the city is giving him or the gifts that he receives from his friends, [are] also saving him.
So in a way, for me, Khalid is not aware of how strong he is, and he doesn’t see that he himself is part of his [own] problems. And I always say to myself [that] it’s a film about friendship. I hate to say what the film [is] about because this is not my role, but deep inside it’s a film about friendship. And he is saved by his friends, in a way.
Talking about humour… I don’t know if there is an Egyptian sense of humour we can talk about, but on a personal level, has humour helped you cope with the past few years of turmoil in your homeland?
TES: Yeah, I mean humour is always a great help. [laughs] And I think this is something that we are very good at.
When Khalid is visiting an apartment, each floor the elevator passes there’s a sticker that says “THOU SHALT NOT LOOK AT WOMEN.” There’s a scene where a woman refuses to let him and the real estate agent look at an apartment without her husband at home, even though they have an appointment. Can we say the film offers a critique of being too attached to religion?
TES: The film is critical when you take... religion is something very personal. The film is raising this question about what it means to just take the super surface of religion, and make everything superficial, and project and use this thing to brainwash people.
The film is also raising this question about what your choices [are] between a political dictator like Mubarak [who] is oppressing you in the name of nationalism, and a religious fundamentalist [who] is killing you in the name of God. And between these two things, what space [do] you have?
You were detained as a student for six weeks for protesting in 1991. What about more recently, did you take part in the 2011 uprising and subsequent protests? How were they, if you joined?
TES: I mean of course it was a moment, in 2011, when my country was changing and again I felt the same urge to be part of this thing. I mean, I feel this is the responsibility of every citizen to be politically engaged. But this is a very different position than my position as a filmmaker.
I don’t see the responsibility of any film to become a political manifesto. For me, the film is [above all] a film, and a film is, in the first place, how to use the image and sound in a creative way to express a position towards the world. And this, of course, includes everything. [For example,] politics comes [into this]. But you are not making a film to shout, to do a political show. But in my personal life, of course, like everyone. This is where I live, and I want to be a part of how things are changing.
What is it like to be an artist in Egypt in the current climate?
TES: Art always comes, for me, from a situation where you feel like you [don’t fit within] your context. [Feeling like a misfit] is the urge to make art in general. And it’s very complicated, because art always comes from the urge to change something, or to feel that something. There are questions about things.
I don’t see that artists are and filmmakers are a friend of any regime; in Egypt or in any country. So it’s always difficult everywhere. Of course it’s more difficult when it comes to a region that has a long history — that’s still present till today — of dictatorship, of oppression, and a lack of human rights. But… this is also my choice. I have the choice to do other things but I choose to do this thing because this is also what I want to do. So I don’t want just to complain about something that I choose.
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