In the Last Days of the City was conceived by director Tamer El Said as a way of bearing witness to the changing situation in Egypt, Cairo in particular.
Together with Rasha Salti, he wrote the outline of a script that had room to adapt as the volatile political situation changed in Egypt. That was in 2007.
The film has taken nine years out of El Said’s life, and eight years of Khalid Abdalla’s, who takes the lead role as a director trying to make a film about the soul of Cairo.
By the end of 2008, when filming began, the city was starting to experience regular protests calling for social and political change. The global financial crisis had begun and another Gaza conflict was underway. The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, was also priming his son to inherit power.
“The film was designed to try to capture this feeling,” says El Said. “It was very clear that things could not continue like this, because it was clear on every level that we were reaching an end. Everyday, you felt like we are coming closer and closer to the edge. It was not difficult to see that something big would happen. Of course, we couldn’t estimate, or assume, what is this thing. What will happen?”
As filming started, the filmmakers only had in place about one-fifth of the budget they needed. In a show of great solidarity, the cast and crew deferred their salaries and began shooting guerrilla-style.
They would rehearse scenes, to get a feel for how they wanted them to play out, but then would hit the streets and improvise on the move, letting the feelings in the moment guide them, rather than strictly following a script.
“You know in films, there is that moment, which everyone loves and says is wonderful, that it was unscripted and happened by happenstance,” says Abdalla.
“But in a sense, it was more than that, it was about protecting that moment, and letting that moment guide the whole process. The entire film was made with that energy, from beginning through to the end.”
The story starts with film director Khalid (Abdalla) looking for a new flat. Everywhere is unsuitable. Meanwhile, his mother (Zeinab Mostafa) is in hospital and his friend Laila (Laila Sammy) is about to leave the country.
Khalid is also trying to make a documentary but spends more time chatting to his filmmaker pals from Baghdad, Beirut and Berlin than making a film.
In the Last Days of the City is a real tribute to the Egyptian capital. Filming ended just two weeks before the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in 2011 that were to dramatically change the course of the country. The filmmakers shot 250 hours of footage and the editing job was immense – especially as the events taking place while the film was being edited constantly led to changing perspectives on the footage that had been shot.
“There is a thing we always say: it was shot with foresight and edited with hindsight,” says Abdalla. “And with every difficulty, in a way, you do your best to turn it into an opportunity.”
El Said was wary of putting too much of the focus on the political situation while shooting.
“This is important to mention,” he says. “Since the beginning, I was very aware that we are in a moment, since the revolution, like the changes are very quick. So, I decided from the very beginning not to consider the political situation while I worked on the film. I wanted the film to work without looking at the political situation because it is changing a lot. I wanted the film to be moving, like a train or like a kite.”
So how do they feel about the political situation now?
“I don’t want to speak on El Said’s behalf, but I think both of us believe that we are in a real process of change and that process is really difficult,” says Abdalla. “Because we are living and working in that context, we see a lot of stuff nobody sees.”
Audiences in the United States will be able to see El Said’s view of Cairo when the film has its US premiere at The Film Society of Lincoln Centre’s New Directors/New Films season in New York next month.
While the narrative of the region as seen in the American and European media is often that of a move towards fundamentalism and chaos, Abdalla sees something different.
“I think what’s happening right now, there is a genuine, attempt to make those changes, but it’s a difficult process,” he says. “So, if you have any expectation that it would move easily or quickly, you are bound to be disappointed.”
The film’s director and star have contributed to the process, through more than just this one film. In the process of making it, they realised that the tools to do so were not readily available. So they founded a film institute, the Cimatheque.
As is often the case, evolution rather than revolution seems to be the key to the first days of the new Cairo.