Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 11, 2016 2:14 pm 
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Song of frustration and stasis

Tamer El Said's beautiful, skillfully wrought, but frustratingly stagnant feature film debut, In the Last Days of the City, is meant as a requiem and an elegy for a Cairo that's gone or perpetually crumbling. Hasn't it always been so? Perhaps, as Jay Weissberg wrote in a detailed, appreciative review in Variety after seeing its debut at Berlin, this is a work "of profound weight and intricate sadness." It's a film drenched in beauty. But it feels maddeningly futile and useless.

Last Days is unquestionably an urban visual poem about what is, however crumbling and stifled, one of the world's greatest and most vibrant cities. The images are all drenched in yellow filter, and artistic to a fault. Notice the wire cyclist on the windowsill with the cityscape beyond, and how the camera lingers on a dissolving cake of powder in a flower vase in the hospital room. Notice how the light sings at dawn behind figures along the Corniche. Having lived in Cairo for several years myself (in the Sixties) and loving urban photography, I'm entranced and made nostalgic by the constant flow of beautiful, unmistakably Cairene images in In the Last Days of the City.

But I'm also frustrated by having to watch the protagonist-filmmaker Khalid (Khalid Abdallah of The Kite Runner and The Square), who seems vaguely handsome but perpetually ineffectual, wander through nearly every frame accomplishing nothing. Yes, he has a camera in his hand. He meets with a sad-faced girlfriend (Laila Samy) who's soon going to leave the country, with a mature woman who apparently does movie voiceovers, and with a generic trio of Arab artist-filmmaker friends from Baghdad (Hayder Helo), Beirut (Bassem Fayad), and Berlin (Basim Hajar). After an enthusiastic reunion in Cairo, they exchange occasional brief conversations, and send Khalid footage -- from Beirut and Baghdad, at least. And we glimpse a very old Iraqi calligrapher, who crafts the beautifully written end credits of the film. Other characters come and go: an acting teacher who longs for a lost Alexandria (Hanan Yousef), his editor (Islam Kamal); a colleague of his late father (Fadila Tawfik) . But these vignettes don't create a sense of action.

Futilely, Khalid goes with a tall, scruffy estate agent (Mohamed Gaber) to look at apartments, because for some reason he must leave his. (These visits are glimpses of decay, shabbiness, and the oppressive encroachment of Muslim fundamentalism.) He edits his film, or looks at shots from it. And very often, he goes to the hospital where his mother (Zeinab Mostafa) lies, suffering from a generic malaise: "you've gotten old," he tells her.

The trouble is that all this, especially for a city and a population that are perhaps the most joyfully and irrepressibly in-your-face in the world, is far too detached a portrait, far too solipsistic. There's too little direct, intense interaction with what's happening in the city, or with people outside Khalid's sphere -- though, granted, we see thousands of them, in the teeming streets. The feel and look of Cairo are wonderfully captured: but at an aestheticized, somewhat humorless and self-important remove.

There is a self-reflexive concept at work in Last Days, with technique to burn. Notice how neatly the film slides back and forth from events happening on screen to their manipulation on an editing screen. And then you realize you're watching both a film about the inability to complete a film about Cairo and the filmmaker wandering around, unable to complete his film. Self-reflexive filmmaker paralysis has never been done better. Perhaps Cairo is the perfect place to stage such convolution. It is the largest city in Africa, it is or was, or still is if there still is, the cultural center of the Arab world today. And yet the crushing of the great hope of the recent "Youth Revolution of 25 January" 2011 now mires Egypt in a regime more repressive than the one they revolted against.

But is this what Khalid wants to talk about in his uncompleted film? No -- because he began making his film in 2009, and the timetable of this film is unclear. We hear some intense (and typically well filmed) anti-Mubarak chants at street demonstrations, and when Khalid meets up with his friends from Baghdad, Beirut, and Berlin, Tahrir Square is mentioned. But the 2011 revolution and the events after it, are never described.

And this vagueness is a mixed blessing. Maybe as Weissberg notes Last Days "benefits from hindsight" because it's not one of the various instant responses to the revolution that now "seem hopelessly dated" -- because the revolution has gone sour and been betrayed. However, setting the film's endless meandering flow of images and repetitious actions -- talk with the friends, meet-ups with the girlfriend, visits to the mother, trips with the estate agent -- in no particular time, it seems to lack purchase on the tumultuous events that took place since Said began his work on the film. Sadly, Said marginalizes his effort in a different way.

In the Last Days of the City/Akher Ayam El Madina/آخر أيام المدينة‬‎, 118 mins., debuted at the Berlinale 14 Feb. 2016, and is scheduled for 1 Apr. at Vilnius. Also in Buenos Aires Intl. Festival of Independent Cinema. Screened for this review as part of New Directors/New Films (NYC), showing there 26 Mar. 2016 at 1:00 p.m. at Walter Reade theater and 27 Mar. at 4 p.m. at MoMA. (Interview with the star and director at the Walter Reade Theater here.) US theatrical release of this film 27 Apr. 2018. Big World Pictures is the distributer. Metacritic rating: 72%.

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