How do you capture the essence of a city? Is it the people, the buildings, the sounds? In Tamer El Said’s elegiac debut film “In the Last Days of the City“, one man wrestles with this central question as he attempts to capture a cinematic portrait of a place that no longer feels like home.
Set during the turbulent period known as the Arab Spring, “In the Last Days of the City” follows a filmmaker in Cairo named Khalid (played by the always watchable Khalid Abdalla). For his latest project, he attempts to get to the heart of what Cairo means to him and the people around him. As he interviews friends and family and amasses footage of the city, he tries to identify a common thread that links them all. But as Egyptian society unravels in preparation for a revolution, a coherent vision begins to elude him.
In what would become the film’s defining visual motif, El Said quickly establishes the film’s identity crises with a shot of Khalid’s dark silhouette against the backdrop of the cityscape. Khalid feels like both a citizen and an outsider, professing a love-hate relationship for a changing city that he struggles to understand. Similar feelings are shared by his visiting friends, fellow filmmakers from the other politically charged Arab hotbeds of Beirut and Baghdad. When they all meet, their conversations reveal a palpable sense of personal loss that instills a pervasive melancholy throughout the film. They describe their cities like long lost friends and indeed, Cairo emerges as more of a character than the passive Khalid.
There’s more to modern Cairo than despair, however. But like his protagonist, El Said struggles to reconcile the contrasting feelings. While the film is shot with a loving warmth that conveys an almost perpetual “magic hour”, there’s a distant feeling to the film’s overly studied approach. There are brief glimpses of its vibrant streets that bring Cairo to life, such as the impassioned protests against the Mubarak government, jubilant celebrations following an important victory for the national soccer team or simply the daily grind of its citizens. But Khalid is never shown as an active participant, which in turn prevents the audience from feeling fully immersed in the atmosphere. As one of his interviewees’ retorts, “watching is not living.”
Undoubtedly, “In the Last Days of the City” is as immaculately crafted as any you’ll see this year. There is an elegance and gravitas that comes from its wistful excerpts of classical music, evocative shot compositions, and contemplative dialogue. But its gloomy outlook seems to occlude the full story, like preemptively mourning a city that isn’t quite dead yet.
“In the Last Days of the City” opens in select theaters April 27.