I believe there are two types of films. There are those that take you on an adventure -- meaning you go through a rollercoaster of emotions and excitement while sitting in the theater, surrounded by others who share the same thrills with you.
Then there are movies which bring you on a journey, one that can last you a lifetime. Egyptian filmmaker Tamer El Said's 'In the Last Days of the City' belongs to the latter category. Once you inhabit its well-shot landscapes and meet its unforgettable cast of characters, they never, ever let go of you. And that's a good thing! More than a year and a half later, after my first viewing they continue to color my dreams and tint my emotions, but most importantly, they have changed the way I think of Cairo, Egypt and its courageous inhabitants.
'In the Last Days of the City' tells the story of a filmmaker, played by Khalid Abdalla ('The Kite Runner', 'The Square') who happens to film Cairo as the city prepares, unaware at best, for the Revolutions of the Arab Spring. El Said's film ends up being as much a love song to Cairo as it is a cautionary tale for all those who ponder leaving their homelands in search of better lives -- for more freedom, a well-paying job, the ability to live in a different way. It also asks, in a subtle yet personally haunting way, where does our homeland live, where do our heritage and our own identity exist? And are we truly ever whole when we leave our birthplace?
I spoke with Tamer El Said -- a great filmmaker to watch mark my words! -- at a coffee shop in NYC, to catch on the conversation we started more than a year ago when the film screened at the BFI London Film Festival, after premiering nearly 8 months before at Berlinale.
Do you feel Arab films getting more interest these days, because the Region is constantly in the news, is making your job "easier"?
Tamer El Said: In general I feel making a film anyway is a difficult mission. If you live in the US or London, Rome or the Arab region, it’s a difficult mission, especially if you want to make your film. It’s much easier if you are happy to make the film they are expecting you to do. But if you really want to fight for your film then it’s a really long battle and I feel the main challenge that is facing any filmmaker today is how to protect their film from being something else. And this is something many filmmakers can slip up on.
In a way, I feel like we have to go through this battle anyway, which is between the very low ceiling which comes from our local Arab situation — meaning in relationship to dictatorships, censorship and ban of freedom of expression — and from the other side the expectations that come from the international industry that is related to what they think the audience is looking for.
Which is not really what the audience is looking for!
El Said: It is just speculation made by some people in the industry who are thinking that this is what fits within it. And even in my film I had this very long fight because many people wanted me to add a scene of the Revolution at the end of the film. And I kept saying “but this is not the film I wanted to make,” and actually I feel the Revolution is stronger if it’s not there. The film is a personal revolution, it releases all these intense feelings that you should leave the cinema with… It wasn’t an easy mission to make it this way and the price was waiting more and more to do the film the way we wanted.
Are you optimistic about the industry within the Arab world?
El Said: I am optimistic because I feel there are new voices and new filmmakers and a new generation — and I’m not talking about a generation in the sense of age rather in the sense of working in the same era. This generation they have a different way of expressing themselves and they find a way to make their films. And I think it’s also good that we make films that are related to our economy, and this is what I’m trying to do now, to make a film that is not bigger than my economy.
Your film for me was never about politics, it is about the turmoil one feels when you ponder leaving your homeland to do something and be someone. And the kind of longing you have for the place from where you came. How have you dealt with it in your own life?
El Said: There is a sentence that one of the characters says, talking about his homeland Baghdad. He’s saying “I can carry Baghdad with me, and it’s like a tree that I can plant in any land.” While the other [character] is saying “if you leave Baghdad you will have nothing.” It’s this battle between the two friends…
Is that your own battle, deep inside?
El Said: Yes and when I made the film I was in a situation where I was settled completely in Cairo and now I’m experiencing the other situation and it’s amazing how the film is resonating differently, now with my life.
I had this question in my head since the beginning, is it possible at all to capture the soul of a city in a two-hour long film? The city is a very big and multilayered structure and the film is only two hours. Every time you try to squeeze the city inside the two hours it feels like it’s losing the depth which the city has. So for me that was the main challenge. I’m like Khalid in the film, living in a big city and facing it every day and I feel this loneliness inside my homeland and the more I try to be connected the more I feel like a stranger. And this relation is what I felt I wanted to make a film about. So you’re right it’s not a political film, in the sense of a film dealing with politics. It’s political in a more subtle way, it’s about our life and how we exist in this big thing. And also it’s about what do you do when the world is collapsing around you and you only have a camera.
You’ve had a lot of hardship to get to this point, but now the film is going to be screening in the US. Can you briefly talk about how difficult the journey was for you, making the film and distributing it?
El Said: Basically it’s very simple. To make a film you need a machine behind you. A machine to do the production, and to show the film you need another machine. For the production I had to wait ten years, to build myself to create my own machine to make the film. But the distribution won’t wait another ten years so without having a machine, you work day and night. If you don’t fit within a certain genre, you know there are labels and it you don’t fit within these labels then you don’t have a space.
In my situation I was also lucky, because from one side I feel my film has a problem, it’s not a film that is explaining the reality. It’s not giving answers to people, and from the perspective of most of the distributors and most of the programmers, films are made to give answers. Especially in the context of Arab cinema and the audience, they always think the audience is looking for answers.
Or a BBC documentary.
El Said: Exactly! Cinema is not news! In the end, I managed to find people who believed in the project and took it. And what is amazing about this journey of two years is that the film grew. It reached an audience by growing and everything happened because there are people, like you, who believed in it and dropped a line to someone or told someone about the film. I like this journey it also built a community.
It was like crowdfunding but without money involved, your film really unleashed the power of one.
El Said: There was a sense of ownership of the film that people decided to take and share this journey with me.
Everyone that watched the film has taken something different away from it, that’s the great power of cinema. Even you’ve admitted that the message has changed for you when you watch your own film. But if you could decide on the ideal message that your audience should take away, or a perfect feeling, what would that be?
El Said: I wish that the film has a very singular and individual experience with every audience. I always say there are films that unify the audience and make everyone feel the same thing and I don’t like that. I see cinema as an interactive process between the filmmaker and the audience. And this process is dependent on the projections that happen from both sides. So I project the film to people and they project their experience back to me. And I like this. This is how I see it.
So how good or bad is something like Netflix, after what you've just said?
El Said: There is not one cinema, there are different parts. And the amazing thing about this art is that it’s developing and changing all the time. So there is no one language. I feel YouTube and Facebook changed the language of cinema. In my film there are some parts that you could not imagine before knowing the selfie. The history of cinema is a continuous battle between the industry and the filmmakers. Look at these changes as when the sound was invented and imagine how horrible that was in the beginning! But then sound became a very integral part and a huge tool in this language so I feel always art will win in the end. I’m not scared, I think this will bring another challenge. But we’re still in the beginning.