The most haunting moment in Tamer El Said’s mesmerizingly beautiful In the Last Days of the City comes late in the film, as we watch, via a series of quick shots, the demolition of a nondescript Cairo apartment building. First, we see an elegant, colorful, well-worn couch sitting surreally amid the ruins, as debris falls all over it. Then, we see a demolition worker standing in a wrecked flat some stories up, glancing at a piece of detritus he’s happened to pick up — a photograph left behind by a former tenant. All this plays out from a distance, so we’re never close enough to see the picture itself. The man casually tosses the photo away, and it floats gently down into the rubble. And then, almost as if by magic, an entire side of the building collapses — as if that flimsy little picture had been the last hinge holding everything else in place.
It is not easy to describe In the Last Days of the City, an immersive visual experience with a wisp of a story and a wellspring of ideas. It follows Khalid (Khalid Abdalla, a familiar face from much bigger movies like The Kite Runner and United 93), a Cairo documentarian who’s been working for years on a film about the city and the people in his life — including his ex-girlfriend and his mother, who is now deathly ill. Meanwhile, he needs to move, and travels around town looking for a flat. Much of the film was shot in Cairo before the Arab Spring and the Tahrir Square protests of 2011 that brought Hosni Mubarak’s government down. The streets bustle with activity and activism — from wandering merchants to armies of protesters, from chanting religious zealots demanding Koranic law to soccer fans celebrating the Egyptian national team’s efforts. Back at his editing bay, Khalid watches these documentary images unfold on his monitors. We watch with him. Occasionally he’ll say something to his editor, and we can never tell initially if what we’re hearing is coming from the film we’re watching or the one he’s making.
Such disorientation speaks volumes. Khalid’s journey takes him through many spaces, but he remains a quietly submerged figure, nearly incapable of meaningful interaction. He never enters his own frame — either practically or metaphorically. Some of this alienation, perhaps, is a response to the world around him. A secular intellectual, he feels distanced from many of his pious fellow citizens. One of the apartment buildings he visits has an elevator that plays a recorded traveler’s prayer, and the walls are festooned with stickers touting religious maxims. He’s looking for a place in the town he calls home but that, increasingly, seems not to have a place for him.
But Khalid’s alienation is also partly his own doing. At one point, he spies from his window a man beating a woman right outside his building and begins to film it. Then, suddenly, he shifts and puts the camera down. We might think he’s about to stop shooting and intervene, but no; it turns out he’s just looking for a better angle. Living through the lens can result in a kind of spiritual paralysis. The world outside might be forbidding, even fallen — but refusing to engage with it can corrode one’s soul.
El Said’s rapturous images of Cairo — wide shots at night, handheld shots following Khalid into alleys and through bustling streets — create a striking portrait of a metropolis that is constantly changing. (You should, by the way, try to see this on the biggest screen you can find.) Like many Middle Eastern cities, it’s caught between modernity and history, between fracture and unity, between upheaval and shelter. It throbs with life and is divided politically and culturally — and yet, five times a day, the same call to prayer rises above the skyline, above the cranes and the minarets and the decaying apartments and the gleaming skyscrapers. Khalid has artist and filmmaker friends from Baghdad and Beirut, expatriates who lament the loss of their homes. But they also believe that they carry their cities within them — that home for the exile will always be a state of mind. “That’s Baghdad,” one says, pointing to his friend from Baghdad, sitting in a crowded Cairo restaurant.
Which brings us back to that falling photograph and the building it seems to take down with it. The subtle implication is that once the memory is gone, the structure can no longer stand. All throughout In the Last Days of the City, Khalid interviews people who longingly remember the places that have meant the most to them. In an interview for his documentary, his mom reflects on her old family home in Alexandria, as we see glimpses of that city in flashback. In a sense, Khalid’s constant need to film, his inability to simply inhabit, speaks to his growing emotional exile from this world. But it also reflects a more immediate anxiety: He is, perhaps, looking for those very things — the images, the textures, the feelings — that will allow him to carry this place and everything it represents within him. What we’re really witnessing is how a city becomes a memory, how a physical home becomes a spiritual one, and how a man becomes a ghost.
In the Last Days of the City
Directed by Tamer El Said
Big World Pictures
Opens April 27, Museum of Modern Art
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