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.