In the Last Days of the City Review
Filmed over an eight year period, Tamer El Said’s beautifully shot, In the Last Days of the City, is intended as a requiem to his home city of Cairo, a bittersweet love letter that mourns the past glories once associated with a crumbling metropolis. Said plays Khaled, who represents a loose interpretation of his own persona, and when we are first introduced, he appears to be overwhelmed by the sequence of events taking place in his life. He searches in vain to find a new flat, never quite finding one that matches his expectations, and his mother (Zeinab Mostafa) continues to struggle with illness. Flashbacks recall a recent long-term relationship that ended with his partner (Laila Samy) leaving Cairo and he’s going round in circles trying to edit the film he's been working on for quite some time.
While Said was filming in the city, the Arab Spring was starting to evolve and that stitches powerfully into the background narrative. He reunites with his fellow filmmaking friends from Baghdad (Hayder Helo), Beirut (Bassem Fayad), and Berlin (Basim Hajar) each one recalling why their home cities remain so alluring, always managing to draw them back by some means or other. Other characters reflectively fall in and out of view, each reminiscing on memories associated to a specific time and place and in their lives.
While undoubtedly a visual treat, with the sand-like tone of Cairo enhanced through warm filters, Said’s musings struggle to express themselves with much clarity. This feels like an intensely personal project and perhaps one that the director isn’t able to translate beyond the walls of his own interpretation. Much of the observational conversations and interactions that take place remain detached and rather than connecting us to the beating heart of the city, you might have to check a few times to find a pulse at all. More confusingly, we switch between Khaled and his friends and Khaled actually shooting the film he is attempting to edit. While technically this seamless self-referential cycle is impressive, it only adds to the general vagueness that plagues the film.
It is yet to receive a release date in Egypt and perhaps never will after being banned across the country last year. Although not as openly critical as some of the recent documentaries that have covered the ongoing political upheavals, the authorities clearly fear allowing anything even slightly condemning to be shown onscreen. Perhaps that’s why it feels difficult to find a way into the soul of Cairo that Said is trying to capture. Being a resident of the city no doubt provides an innate understanding of the films melancholic spirit, one that has only grown larger over the past six years. In the Last Days of the City is a film made with love, care and attention but perhaps, for now, the wrong audience are being given the opportunity to truly appreciate it.