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Review: In the Last Days of the City

(Tamer El Said, Egypt/Germany, Big World Pictures, Opened April 27)

There’s a pleasing formal confusion that enlivens In the Last Days of the City, the years-in-the-works directorial debut feature of Egyptian filmmaker Tamer El Said. As the film begins, Khalid (the actor Khalid Abdalla), a serious thirtysomething filmmaker, visits the latest in a long line of flats he’s viewed with an overeager realtor frustrated with his picky client. The camera picks Khalid out on the street hailing a cab to head downtown, and joins him for the ride, but it seems distracted, more interested in turning figures along the river into rushed-by abstracts, eager to hang for a beat or two on a beggar pulling her belongings through the street.

The reason behind the camera’s only glancing interest in Khalid, the ostensible protagonist, emerges soon after. In a series of uncomfortable close-ups, a woman in a car reminisces about her childhood home in Alexandria. Edits catch odd, artfully dissected pieces of her face, and her voice is disconnected from the image in ways that disrupt any sense of naturalism the film might have accustomed us to. Then, through a near-seamless match-cut, the scene is revealed to be footage from Khalid’s own documentary as it is viewed, rewound, and recut in an edit suite—where Khalid sits beside an editor who seems as frustrated with his client’s indecision as that realtor.

In the Last Days of the City proceeds in this fashion—nearly any image we see might be paused, scrolled quickly through, zoomed in on, or replayed for emphasis. And its protagonist often plays second fiddle to images of bustling street life. Khalid is in the midst of making some kind of personal documentary, one that he seems unable to finish. Meanwhile, life is careering on around him. His ex-lover is leaving Egypt, frustrated with her home country. His mother lies on her deathbed with an unspecified illness. He has to vacate his flat in under a month. Three filmmaker friends visit from abroad—Beirut, Berlin, and Baghdad—and after a panel discussion about political filmmaking that might have come from any number of Hong Sang-soo films, the three offer to send Khalid footage from their homes to help their friend stave off his creative torpor.

As the friends’ footage enters the picture, one gets the sense that Khalid has started to find his own film, even if his editor can make neither head nor tail of how personal testimonies of calligraphers in Baghdad and diaries of the seashore near Beirut fit together with the material already documented. Outside of the edit suite, Khalid walks and observes. In the Last Days of the City was shot prior to the January 25 Revolution and the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and the seeds of revolt are present in nearly every frame. Protests against the regime mount, signs of encroaching radicalized Islamism dot cosmopolitan Cairo, Egypt wins a major soccer match. Said and DP Bassem Fayad’s fleet shooting places characters in and among these real-life scenes as they happen, much in the way Agnès Varda might do, further complicating the film’s interplay between fact and fiction.

Revolution approaches and Khalid slowly begins to pack up his cluttered apartment. Documentary filmmakers might locate some wry humor here—films unfinished haunt your life, and oftentimes what is happening around you, in the now, seems more bristling and vital. A disconnected, struggling artist mourning lost love and wandering the streets of his homeland while it heaves around him could also describe the 1968 Cuban landmark Memories of Underdevelopment, and In the Last Days of the City does scan as a kind of Arab Spring update for the age of digital filmmaking. After filming took place in fits and starts through 2009 and 2010, Said’s film finally premiered in 2016; his older-school video images have a pleasingly antiquated quality to them.

We never learn if Khalid finishes his film, but we know how the history of the moment in which he attempts to make it played out, and this knowledge of revolution gone awry hangs darkly over the film. Said’s debut is a valuable artifact of a time that’s already gone, brought to life and view years after it was begun. Perhaps, like Khalid, it took him some time to find his film as well.

Jeff Reichert is a filmmaker and critic.