Beautiful, brooding, and astonishingly two-faced, Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City is a quasi-documentary fiction with both multiple precedents and none at all. You could locate it within world cinema’s heritage of city symphonies (the place, in this instance, being Cairo); the line of intensely imagistic, narratively unsettled Arab-language pictures best represented by the Syrian avant-garde (whose filmmakers, I fear, might now be worse than embattled); or the Western European tradition, perfected by Michelangelo Antonioni, of movies about sad, lonely people walking around and staring at things. All these triangulating references are apt—and yet they don’t give you a fix on Said’s picture, because it simply won’t sit still.
Said shot In the Last Days of the City from 2008 through at least the early part of 2010 (or so I’m estimating, based on the scenes of street celebrations after an Egyptian victory in the Africa Cup of Nations), working from a script he wrote with Rasha Salti. He then assembled the film from the footage he’d amassed—about 250 hours’ worth, according to one account—continuing the editing into 2016. Hence the Janus faces: The film looks forward through the eyes of Khalid (Khalid Abdalla), who is too preoccupied to realize he’s witnessing the beginnings of the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising; it also looks backward through the eyes of Said, who knows that the stirrings of democratic rebellion he captured back then have culminated (for now) in authoritarian stasis. These two gazes coexist within one set of images.
If that makes In the Last Days of the City sound challenging to watch, you should know that it is above all a richly sensuous film, which strives to accommodate the thick, shifting layers of sight and sound that overwhelm verbal descriptions of Cairo. But, yes, magical achievements such as the Janus vision are difficult not only to create but also to receive. Do not expect the conventional comforts of heart-pounding suspense.
If time is like a river—not a bad image for a movie that has the Nile flowing through it—then most filmmakers struggle against the current. They devote themselves to the art of getting people to care about what might come next, whereas Said knows that film, by the laws of physics, can only record images of what the river has just borne away. If you care about the subject before the camera as Said cares about Cairo—very deeply—then narrative drive counts for very little next to the fact that you’re experiencing love and loss 24 times a second.
That’s what seems to matter most to Khalid as he wanders through downtown with his camera. A slim, quiet, thirtyish man born into an artistic family, Khalid has the inclination and the resources to spend his time working on a documentary about… what? The project, which seems as interminable as psychoanalysis, mostly involves collecting and editing interviews with women who are on their way out of his life—his mother (Zeinab Mostafa), who is dying; his former lover (Laila Samy), who is about to leave the country—or who say they have nothing to tell him, like the theater director (Hanan Youssef) who is fed up with his asking about the old days in Alexandria. “No more nostalgia!” she shouts at him, adding that when he gets back to his stuffy apartment, he ought to open the windows for a change.
But Khalid, in the tradition of Chekhovian characters at a triple impasse—personal, artistic, world-historical—has no problem with his apartment, other than needing to leave it. Buildings are being demolished all around, and it seems that he too will have to move within a couple of months, though his real-estate agent can’t seem to find him a place without chickens roosting in it.
So Khalid drifts with the current: not exactly in the moment (because he’s always mulling over the past, and shooting scenes that vanish before his eyes), but swimming in the perceptual flood. The irony, of course, is that he doesn’t see what time is carrying him toward, even when he inadvertently catches it on film.
Sometimes, he passes a little crowd chanting that the Quran must rule. At other times, he walks by a few rows of demonstrators calling for the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Always there are soldiers and plainclothes cops—the former staring ahead blank-faced, the latter looking around with vulpine appetite. As a title card announces, these images begin in December 2009. At that point, two years before the uprising, they’re just threads in the fabric of the city to Khalid—neither more nor less important than a stooped beggar woman, a bright little girl selling cigarettes in the midst of traffic, a veteran of the 1967 war retelling his stories for the thousandth time in a cafe, or the views through taxicab windows that turn Cairo into an unfolding shallow-focus band of shimmering light and color.
Khalid can try to grasp these elusive sights and sounds, but he has no one to share them with—no one to think with him about what the effort of filming means—except for three friends his own age who are also about to slip away. All three are visiting filmmakers who have come to Cairo for a panel discussion; one resides in Beirut, another in Baghdad, and the third—having fled Iraq’s bloodshed—in Berlin. (They are played, respectively, by Bassem Fayad, Hayder Helo, and Basim Hajar.) In the Last Days of the City is at its most energetic and convivial, and also its most argumentative, when the four buddies are together, talking through the night and then driving through the streets at dawn with video cameras in their hands. Each visitor faces his own artistic and political dilemma; each promises to send Khalid some images so he can finally finish his damned movie. Then the friends scatter, to become hovering absences like all the others.
Now that In the Last Days of the City has reached the United States, beginning with limited runs in New York and Los Angeles, it is irresistible, if facile, to compare it with the Brad Anderson–Tony Gilroy thriller Beirut (which is, by the way, not a terrible movie). The obvious difference is viewpoint: One is internal to the place and culture, the other external. But the more important distinction is open versus closed form. Said is willing to give you something that is all the more affecting for being discontinuous and inconclusive—a deliberately paced leap toward the impossible. No film about incipient failure could be more brilliant about looking back while falling short.