Culture

Recollecting a decade of last days

BEIRUT: “Anyone can recognize the bad shot and edit it out. The difficult thing is taking out the good shot that is causing a problem.” Tamer El Said glances into his mug of coffee. He doesn’t drink.

“There was one shot, that I consider the best of my life,” he continues, “the opening shot of the film. It stayed on the timeline for six years. ... Then one day I wanted to see the film without that scene. I cut it.”

In this absented sequence Said’s protagonist Khalid (Khalid Abdalla) sets up a camera to interview himself. Hanging between the camera and the window behind him, a lens shows a miniature vista of an upside-down Cairo.

“What the shot shows isn’t important,” the filmmaker says. “It’s how it was done. The movement, the rhythm, how Khalid entered, how he touched the lens. It was so cinematic ... but I thought it’s better that Khalid grows within the film, rather than have him tell us who he is.”

Said has become a storied figure in regional cinema circles. The Cairene writer-director started making his first feature, “In the Last Days of the City,” a little over a decade ago. As the project stretched on, tales of the financial and creative hurtles confronting it – and the filmmaker’s dogged perseverance – became a subplot of the changes overtaking this region and its still-nascent film industry.

Khalid is a secular filmmaker struggling to make a film about Egyptians’ sense of place. His labors are set in a city whose increasingly strident expressions of religiosity make it ever-more claustrophobic to him.

In one amusing motif, the camera looks on as he watches the transformation of the clothing store across the street from his family flat. One evening he sees the male staff stripping the shop’s female-shaped mannequins of their tank tops and miniskirts. Then he notices the display windows being lined with newspapers. Finally, the mannequins – still frozen in carefree clubbing poses – are draped in variations on a theme of black muhajaba attire.

The passage of time makes Cairo suffocating. His family flat is scheduled for demolition, so he must find someplace to live. His girlfriend Laila (Laila Samy) is migrating and he can’t prevent her. His mother (Zeinab Mostafa) is dying and he’s desperate for her to see his finished work.

“This happened to me in reality,” Said says. “The mother in the film is my mother. You know I was hoping she’d see the film, because she started to get sick when we started the shoot. ... I felt I was in a race because I wanted to finish the film and show it to her, but I lost. She died, while we were filming.”

Last century, many Arab films were independent simply because the region’s film industry (and most national industries) was underdeveloped and filmmakers were innocent of how international co-production worked. “Last Days” is an indie film from concept to post-production. This played a role in its long production schedule.

Said says he and co-scriptwriter Rasha Salti didn’t want to lock the film into a detailed script but “to make a maquette, a blueprint for the film that allowed its spirit to grow” – challenging since a script is meant to be very precise.

Further challenges grew from the film’s subject matter, which was freighted with latent cliché.

“It has all the elements of a self-indulgent, sentimental movie,” Said observes. “It’s a film about a film, with filmmakers speaking about cinema. It’s about downtown Cairo, where characters talk about the past and loss, which can easily fall into cheap nostalgia.”

There’s a fine line between lyricism and sentimentality and it was challenging to find a way to handle this latent cliché without making them the film’s subject.

The challenges of reconciling creative flexibility with clarity intimidated potential backers, forcing Said to produce himself. He found it difficult to find financing at home and it was difficult to find support from elsewhere in the region.

“I didn’t want the film to apologize to the audience,” Said says. “Yaani, please like me because I don’t have the money to do good color correction or sound design. I believe that film must engage people. If the film isn’t captivating and people don’t like it, I can’t blame them.”

An important narrative element of “Last Days” involves Khalid’s pals, a clutch of Arab filmmakers who profess an ambivalence about their cities that’s akin to the protagonist’s relationship with Cairo.

Bassem (Bassem Fayad, Said’s cinematographer) is a Beiruti who can’t film aging Beirut’s excessive plastic surgery. Hassan (Hayder Helo) is a Baghdadi who stubbornly refuses to leave his source of inspiration. Another Baghdadi, Tarek (Basim Hajar) has migrated to Berlin because he can’t bear the slaughterhouse his city has become.

The film’s plethora of dangerously sentimental themes makes it resemble a debut film that seeks to include the author’s whole world – or perhaps an aesthetic afterimage of 20th-century Arabism.

That wasn’t the filmmaker’s intention. His basic motive in making films, Said explains, is to understand himself.

“I was trying to figure out my past, my present, my future. ... Growing up in this region, I thought this is the way things are everywhere, that wherever you go you will always have the same awareness of having a policeman standing next to you.

“When I met people from different countries, I saw that they don’t become nervous. Their relationship with the state is different. The feeling of citizenship is different. The feeling of how they belong to the city, their rights and duties are different.

“I wondered how ‘geography is destiny,’ as Ibn Khaldun said, but in the end, I had no intention of making a film ‘about’ something. I have zero feeling for cinema’s social or political responsibility. I think this is very dangerous when you make a film, because [you guarantee the film will become dated very quickly].

“I wonder whether it’s possible to make the multilayered structure of a city in a two-hour film, without making everything superficial. How can we reflect all the gray tones within a city and not just represent stereotypical characters?

“I thought it was better to make a film that takes a risk and fails than to make a film that comes from a well-made equation that was done a million times and doesn’t take the cinema anyplace else.”

Said says he doesn’t resent the decade he devoted to making his debut film. “I don’t regret the 10 years ... I’m still hoping. The last thing I want to do before turning the page is to screen the film in Egypt. Apart from this, this period really made me think again about what I want to do. I changed. I developed. I became closer to how I want to be.”

“In the Last Days of the City” is screening exclusively at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. For more information, see http://www.metropoliscinema.net/

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 05, 2017, on page 16.

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