‘Last Days of the City’… A Cairo collapsing, a lover leaving and an Arab region at the point of no return

Tamer El-Said takes us on a short and trying journey in his latest film, “Last Days of the City”, giving us a glimpse of some of the societal and human lamentations moving through his unique interpretation of the city of Cairo... This film is still showing in theaters in Berlin at: WOLF Kino (Weserstraße 59, 12045 Berlin - Neukölln)

von Asmaa Yousuf

Filmstill aus "Last Days of the City"
Filmstill aus “Last Days of the City”

(إضغط هنا، لقراءة المقال باللغة العربية)

Tamer El-Said takes us on a short and trying journey in his latest film, “Last Days of the City”. He gives us a glimpse of some of the societal and human lamentations moving through his unique interpretation of the city of Cairo. A city that reunites four filmmakers, old friends, under its dust-colored skies: Khaled from Egypt, Bassem from Lebanon, Tarek, an Iraqi living in Germany as a refugee, and Hassan, who insists on remaining in Baghdad under any and all circumstances.


Mubarak’s world, where Egyptians live on the margins

Starting from the opening scene, we continuously hear intermittent radio news transmissions announcing that “President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak” inaugurated something over here and travelled to strengthen some relationship over there. His news haunt you in every corner of the city, especially during the taxi rides that Khaled, the protagonist, takes to visit his sick mother at the hospital. One news report about a fire in Beni Suef passes fleetingly on the radio announcing the death of 50 Egyptians, one of whom is the father of a girl called Maryam, a character in the film Khaled is attempting to make. We watch as she throws herself into the Cairene chaos of life in an attempt to forget what happened to her father.


The shame of seeking refuge or death in the remains of a country like Iraq? Or an oppressive city like Beirut?

The film addresses the issues of seeking refuge, which, at the time, did not hold the same position of importance as they do today. Tarek, the Iraqi filmmaker, fled the war and went to Germany, where he lives as a refugee in Berlin, forbidden to return to his homeland due to his ‘protective’ status. Meanwhile, the other Iraqi character, Hassan, refuses to leave Baghdad and considers being a refugee something shameful, he finds dying in a bombing in Baghdad to be more dignified than fleeing to Europe and becoming a refugee, a point of great argument between the two Iraqis, like the many unproductive discussions that happen between the four friends about migration. At some point, the camera stops on the Lebanese character, Bassem’s, face as he describes how beautiful Beirut was during the war, and how hateful and manipulative it is now. He explains that Cairo, in all its ugliness, does not hide behind facades, it does not pretend to be anything other than what it is. When the friends part to return to each of the cities where they live, they part with a promise to film clips in their cities and send them to their friend Khaled, in hopes that they could help him with his film.


Looking for the past in a crumbling world

The film embodies the feelings of nostalgia and loss in their deepest forms. Hanan, a stage performer and one of the characters in Khaled’s film, looks for her memories in her childhood home in Alexandria, which was demolished by the owner to build a shopping mall instead. She describes, longingly and with desperation in her voice, how this house witnessed both her and her mother’s childhood. And Khaled looks for his past by going to a woman named Abla Fadila, to ask about his father who used to work with her, only to realize that she does not remember him nor his father, nor anything he came to ask for.

Everything feels pale and silent, as the director, Tamer ElSaid, explores Khaled’s cold expression on the screen, never showing true emotions of sadness nor of happiness. Besides being in a personal state of loss, Khaled’s life seems to be at a breaking point on a financial, emotional and familial level; His mother is sick and dying in hospital, he cannot afford the apartment he dreams of and his lover has left him and Egypt for good. We do not see Khaled getting angry, irritated nor crying, but there is a deep sadness in his eyes and you only get to know him through his movements and silence.

The four friends represent a microcosm of the Arab lament in their longing for their beloved cities that have changed beyond recognition.


The chaos before the end

Tamer ElSaid presents us with overlapping scenes of Egyptians celebrating the country’s famous win against Algeria at the African cup, scenes of Egyptians praying in the middle of the street surrounded by complete chaos, and quickly switches to scenes of the protest against nepotism in the government held by the Kefaya movement, chanting “Down, down with military rule! Egypt is a state not a military camp!”. We are left confused, almost in a state of dejavu, were these protests before or after the revolution? And we are quickly reminded that the downfall of the military state was not a new demand during the eighteen days of protest. The confusion then turns to sadness, anger and disappointment.

Tamer clearly show us the superficiality in which Cairo is drowning, in two particular scenes. One where Khaled goes to his apartment-viewing appointment, only to be left waiting in front of the apartment until one of its resident comes out to tell him they were praying and couldn’t come to the door and that in fact the man he’s here to meet is not even present. In the second scene, we see more images of the shallowing of religion, represented in the many stickers calling for women to veil themselves and urging people to pray. It feels forced, like people don’t want to be faithful but are pressured to do so – even the elevator plays a loud prayer for every button you press.


Khaled, the lost observer of a city crumbling in silence

The film’s events all happen in the framework of the disintegrating film Khaled is attempting to produce. Tamer ElSaid replaces the usual theme of showing the ugliness of informal housing and buildings in Cairo with two profound images, the first: Cairo’s yellow, dust-filled skies as they reflect on a magnifying glass hung by the window of his room, one that he never opens, thereby shutting himself off from Cairo’s noise and pollution. And the second image, in the scenes of demolition, of the house in Alexandria shown in slow detail, accompanied by the voice of Nour ElHoda singing Garat El-wady (Neighbor of the valley), interrupted by sounds of falling bricks, furniture and memories.

In the final scene we see Hassan, the young Iraqi who refuses to flee. He had filmed a scene of himself on a boat, to honor the deal the four friends had made to send Khaled some footage to help him finish his scattered film.

Tamer ElSaid summarizes the absurdity and despair that Egypt witnessed on the cusp of revolution, somehow capturing in the scenes that feeling of inevitable change. What is strange, is that even though it has been 7 years since the production of this film and though we have actually seen the reality of what happened in the years following its events, it still gives this feeling of anticipation for what changes the years after 2010 might bring. Did I, as an Egyptian, go into a state of denying the painful reality that we now live in or did time freeze for me at a moment of despair (2010), one that still had enough space to hold our dreams of change? Or was this all an emotional and mental illusion I have used to reassure myself – that there is a chance the experience of the revolution can repeat itself, one more time?


Asmaa Yousuf | Amal Berlin

Here is the trailer:

This article orginially appeared on the website of „Amal, Berlin!“ (link) and has been translated and published with premission of the Author Asmaa Yousuf.

Translation from Arabic to English by Malak AlSayyad