Interview: Tamer El Said
Tamer El Said’s In The Last Days of the City is a love letter to those who don’t yet have their lives figured out. Following a confused and endearing 35-year-old filmmaker named Khalid—who bears a not-inconsequential resemblance to El Said himself—the film joins him on his journey to finish a film, restore harmony with a lost love, negotiate a nascent revolution, and, perhaps most quixotically, locate a cheap (and fowl-free) home.
Filmed from 2008 to 2010 in Cairo, Beirut, and Baghdad, El Said’s film is part diary and part documentary, its tone by turns dusky meditation and volcanic alarm. His Cairo—and, by extension, his life—sprawls, twists, and spills over. We meet Khalid’s mother, confined to a hospital bed; Laila, his girlfriend, who’s preparing to leave Cairo (“I want to kiss you in public and feel it’s normal. All we do is hide.”); and Khalid’s beloved film circle, denizens of Baghdad and Beirut, who console and commiserate over his exuberant misdirection. We observe political rallies, drunken celebration, fleeing thieves, but also moments of repose: the sighs of the city, the roosting of chickens, the inadequate watering of cacti. El Said’s rhythms are patient and peripatetic, capturing the desultory and the in-between. Khalid, facing the overwhelming task of sifting his days into art, cannot finalize his film any more than he can sort out his life.
For El Said, previously a director of shorts and documentaries, the film feels like an act of engagement, a plot to finally escape his shelter and engage the world. At one point, Laila tells Khalid, “You never even open up the consoles of your stuffy flat. It’s like a burrow.” Elsewhere, a statue of Mustafa Kamil Pasha instructs: “Do not live in despair, and do not despair of life.” El Said’s shots linger, shifting in focus, provisional and protean. None of Khalid’s stories quite end. As the film tells us: “Skip the beginnings, stay in the middle, and live.”
Film Comment’s interview with El Said originally took place back in 2016, when In the Last Days of the City screened in New Directors / New Films. The film finally opens for a theatrical run on April 27 at the Museum of Modern Art.
I’ve read that you shot 250 hours of footage for this film, and that it took eight years to make. Is that right?
It took eight years to make it. I filmed it over two years. But it took me one to two years of preparation, and then almost five years of finishing the film. We started the production with less than 15 percent of the budget. And everybody was saying, “Guys, don’t do this. Wait. Secure the money, at least for the shooting, and then continue.” But we were in a situation of now or never. We had the crew, we had everybody. Many people had left their countries. So everybody decided to defer his fee, and we just started to do it. What was planned to be three months of shooting lasted for two years. We had to film, stop, and look for money, and then film, stop, and look for money. That was exhausting and frustrating, especially with a film without a script. It was as if we were walking in huge desert on a very dark night. You can’t see any light, and you just follow your intuition and wish this will lead to something.
We started shooting in the beginning of 2009. And of course there was this feeling that something big would come, because it was clear that we couldn’t carry on like this. Then it we kept shooting for two years. So it ended up that because of this very difficult financial situation, we were also privileged with the opportunity of being stretched over the last two years before the revolution happened. It also gave us something that no other film has. We are the only film that captured the real last days of the city, in a deep sense.
Was there improvisation? How much of a structure or outline was there going in?
This is exactly what motivated me to make the film. I was always wondering how we lose this amazing mixture that we have in life between spontaneity and structure. The way we sit now, the way we speak, the light here, this is something that wasn’t structured. But it has some beauty. When we try to put this on a big screen, we lose this spirit. How do we keep this intensity that we have in real life? The other thing is that I feel Cairo is a beautiful city. It’s very photogenic, it’s full. It has a character, and I never saw it in cinema in a way that was convincing for me. I knew that you can’t shape the city. You have to go into it. You propose something, and then wait to see what the city is giving you, and then you build on this.
I wanted to keep this mood during the whole process. Working on the script with Rasha Salti for a long time, almost a year, we were just weaving the lines of the film, and making sure that we kept things open. And then we allowed the magic to happen. Our main challenge was to be ready because you can miss it. And that was not an easy process, knowing that I’m kind of a control freak and I’m very OCD. So I try, with the whole the team, to build something between us where we can just allow things to happen. This is a very long process and is very frustrating because it happens a lot that you go and you try, and it doesn’t work. Not one time or three times, sometimes for many days.
I always imagine when you make a feature based on a script, it’s like you are a farmer, sowing the seeds and taking care of the plants and watering every day. You see things growing, and it’s very beautiful. But when you make a documentary, it’s like you’re a fisherman. You go to the sea and you just throw the net and you believe you will come back with something. And sometimes the sea is not generous, but when the sea is generous, it gives you a lot. I was trying to be both. I was trying to be a farmer when it’s needed, and the fisherman when I can.
How did you first meet your protagonist, Khalid Abdalla?
I needed someone who can carry a soul, and someone that I can collaborate with. For me, this triangle between a character, an actor, and a director is very important. For this role, I considered more than one hundred people, including some film stars. But it didn’t work. The most important thing when I’m casting is to see how people are thinking. At this moment, Khalid was in The Kite Runner. A friend suggested that we send the script to him. I didn’t know if he spoke Arabic or not, or if he’d be open to it, and I didn’t believe that someone who made films like United 93 would look at our film. But then I sent him an email, and he answered me directly saying, “Yes—I’m very open to making something in Egypt. Please send me the script.” So, I sent him the script, and two weeks after, he called me at six o’clock in the morning and said, “I just read it now, and I like it, and I want to make it.”
That was the beginning of 2007. But at that moment he was committed to make Green Zone with Matt Damon. And I wanted to shoot. When it didn’t work I said to him, “Listen, I will try to find someone else. If it doesn’t work, I will wait for you.” And I waited for him almost a year. And then he came to Cairo. First, I went to London. I remember we met in Waterloo Station. And I made my decision that minute—on my way to meet him, when I saw him sitting there. I saw that he could carry this soul. Then it became even better because the collaboration grew, and he joined me as a fellow producer. And I think his life also changed. Now he’s living in Cairo—he was living in London. He built his place inside what we could call the Arab independent cinema. So I’m very happy for this. And it’s the same thing with Bassem [Fayad], for example, the DP, who is a great friend from Lebanon. Bassem has an extraordinary eye, but I like also the way he thinks of things, the way he feels things, I like how he feels the image. And the same thing for Hayder [Helo], the Iraqi in the film, who is a beautiful character, a beautiful soul. Everybody, all of the actors.
So the character Khalid plays is a thirty-something filmmaker. Can you talk a little bit about the role of autobiography in the film?
I see it as a personal film. It’s not autobiographical in the sense of telling events that happened in my life. But it’s personal. This French friend of mine, a critic, called it autoportrait. It’s about how I feel things. There are certain things… like, the mother. The flat Khalid stays in is my flat. But I see Khalid in the film as a fictional character. I share with him certain feelings. At the same time I think the character benefited from having Khalid add something from his soul. I also think the character has something from the friends. The three of them were close. Eating. Going to the cinema. Discussing. Arguing. Agreeing. Disagreeing. All these things created a character that has a shared history with me. But it’s not me.
There are a few shots in the film, in particular when Khalid is in the hospital with his mother, where the characters enter and leave close focus. In the hospital, it seemed to speak to Khalid’s difficulty in attaining an intimacy with her. Can you talk a bit about that, and your framing choices, generally? How did you find the look of the film?
Khalid, as a character inside the film, is someone trying to capture something and he can’t. He’s stuck between his memories and his past and a present, a surrounding existence, that is very suffocating, and a future that he can’t see. He feels that he is losing everything and he cannot hold it. That is what is pushing him more and more to the edge. For me this is a very cinematic situation—how you can try to find the sharpness in a situation that is very blurry. And it goes with the whole picture. You are in a city that politically is going through a difficult situation, threatening everything, and you don’t see any future. There is no space to breathe under a dictatorship that is ruining and oppressing a whole community. How can you love? How can you enjoy kissing someone? How can you find intimacy? How can you live your humanity, or enjoy being in a city? And that’s why you can’t see sharply, and you can’t feel distinctly.
Khalid is a character that was in a race with time. And I’m sharing this with him. As you might imagine, making a film is a process of dealing with loneliness. It’s a daily feeling that is so difficult. I’m living there, and my office is there, and I live in the same flat, and these people who I film inside the film are the people I see every day. And sometimes I don’t know what comes from life and what comes from the film. Both come together. So I spent the whole day editing a scene, and then go to the street, and see the same characters that I was editing, walking the streets and sometimes wearing the same clothes. They are still there, all the side characters that you see in the city, which I call the city ghosts.
But also many things happened. There was that revolution. There was a regime that was collapsing, and there was a counterrevolution, and all these things happened, and then you ask yourself, “Did something change? Or has nothing changed yet?” All these questions come to you. What’s true? What is cinema and what is life? I like to work on my film as a film that is trying to move these borders between reality and fiction, between documentary and fiction, between the cities, between the people. For me, there is a place where we are all mutual. And the innocent man who is killed in Baghdad, it’s as horrible as the innocent who is killed in Paris, or Brussels, or New York. In this place, we are all suffering. And I wanted to capture this.
Speaking about that sense of incapacity or ambivalence, I wanted to ask you about the scene where Khalid sees a man and woman fighting on a roof. You think perhaps that Khalid is going to intervene, but instead he picks up the camera.
I like this scene. Also, that other scene when the demonstrator was beaten up by the police, and he was there, and didn’t intervene. I remember this question coming up during the revolution. I come from a city where it was very difficult, where everything was forbidden. I can’t shoot in the street. I have to have many permits. I need to go and prove that I’m not a spy, I’m not doing something wrong. They don’t want me to work. It’s just like I’m annoying them for no reason. When I make this film, I have to bring a paper from the union that says I’m part of the union. And I’m part of the Union, but in the directors department. But because I’m the scriptwriter, I had to pay a fine. I was punished for writing the script for myself. [Laughs]
Then you imagine what happened after the 25th of January. I’m living downtown, six minutes away from Tahrir Square. Just imagine what I feel when I see all my friends carrying cameras and filming in the streets, demonstrating their absolute right to film their life and their cities. But what’s our responsibility when we carry the camera? What should we film? What do we do? But the character, Khalid, is not me, because I also think that Khalid himself is part of his problems. Khalid is not aware that he has this power, and maybe he is stronger than he thinks. When you are inside an event, and you see a demonstrator is bleeding, and you have a camera in your hand, and at the same time, you see for example, a very beautiful shot of a pigeon flying with the light in the background, what do you do? Do you film the pigeon, or do you film the beaten demonstrator, or do you throw aside the camera and try to save him? I don’t have an answer. What’s our role? It is something I question for myself every day.
Were any of the political gatherings staged for the film? Or were you just capturing what was naturally going on—or was it a mix?
You know, it’s very mixed. When I started to shoot this thing about Khalid looking for a flat, it was a fictional thing. It was something I made up to corner Khalid and put more pressure on him. But just seven weeks before the shoot, I received a note from the owner of my flat asking me to leave. [Laughs] So we postponed the shoot, because I had to find another flat. And then what was fictional became real. Of course, there are things that were constructed, and there are real things. And I’ll be very honest with you. I know many of them, but some of them, I really don’t. I can’t say. What is constructed if we put the camera and there is Khalid, if the surrounding is real but he is acting in it? That’s why I’m saying these borders have to be blurry.
At one point in the film, a character argues that war magnifies life, because it sharpens one’s appreciation of everyday living: “You get joy in going to the barber, going to buy bread, getting toothpaste.” What do you make of that?
Inside war, life has a different meaning. I don’t think it makes life better. But it makes it different. And it makes you think of your life differently. It makes you go deep into yourself and understand things that you didn’t necessarily understand before. Because, at the end of the day, I can’t change the politics. I can’t affect in a direct way how the President of the United States is making decisions. But I can work on myself. And I think all the time about my responsibility. When you are living in these very unsafe circumstances, your context is making you think often about this, when you grow up with explosions as a part of your daily life, losing friends or family members as a part of your daily life.
We had a discussion with a translator. In the scene in the tunnel, when Tarek says, “It’s very difficult for me to encounter a corpse in the morning.” The translator said, “No, he means ‘facing.’” Because in English, we don’t “meet” a corpse, unless this is a zombie film. And they are right. But, in fact, in Arabic too we don’t “meet” a corpse. But Tarek meant to say encounter. Because it becomes your daily life: it’s as if you meet a friend. You go, and then you hear on the phone that this friend was killed or kidnapped or imprisoned. You grow with all these fears, and then you need to find a passion for yourself to be able to move. Otherwise you surrender. Otherwise you would lose it. Otherwise you become crazy. Otherwise you become extremist. And to deal with these things is very important.
In one scene, the filmmakers meet for a panel, and say, “We end up not really talking about filmmaking as much as politics.” Do you feel in your interviews for the movie you’ve been asked inordinately about politics?
Yes. It’s torture. [Laughs] Because it’s narrowing the film. Of course, the politics are there, but politics are everywhere. I hate propaganda, especially in cinema, and I feel the responsibility of any film in the first place is to be a film, and being a film means using sound and image in a creative way to express itself. And once we try to put messages inside this thing, then we lose the beauty of subtlety of using this image and sound. I was intentionally avoiding making the film linked to a certain political event. Because then it would be a film that has a very short life.
Can you talk a bit about your inspirations? Who are your favorite filmmakers?
The cinema I like is not necessarily the same language [as mine]. One great director I love is the Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos. He uses a moving camera, very long takes… This is his way of creating poetry. I also have to say I love and I’m getting very inspired by young filmmakers and small films that maybe don’t have the power and budget to make it to big festivals and be seen. For example, in this film I was collaborating with my co-producer in Germany, a German-Polish filmmaker, Marcin Malaszczak. I love his work, and he was very inspiring to me, the way he thinks of cinema, the way he is trying to find his language.
Can you talk about some of your work with the Cimatheque Alternative Film Centre in Cairo, and building an independent cinema in Egypt?
Every film needs a machine behind it. And this machine has to rely on a certain infrastructure that can allow you to work. We realized, through the process of making the film, that 95 percent of our time, money, and effort was consumed by building the infrastructure to be able to make what we want to do. So at a certain point, we said, let’s do it once and for all, help ourselves, and help the others. That was the main idea of building Cimatheque, which is a space, a home for cinema, with facilities. It’s a place where this platform of independent cinema can emerge. Because the state doesn’t support you—on the contrary, the state is against you.
Do you still plan to film in Cairo? What projects are you planning next?
I’m taking a breath. At the end of the day, it’s not important to make many films, it’s important to be truthful to yourself. And my real project is myself. I want to be a better person. I am making films hoping that it helps me to be better. Mainly now I’m questioning the image we create about ourselves and our real image. And this is the thing that I’m thinking of. I’m still in the process of constructing the film in my head. It’s also a film that is happening in different cities.
How does it feel to be done with In the Last Days of the City, so many years later?
It’s like magic. One moment, I looked at the film and I said, “Yes. This is the film I wanted to do eight years ago.” And then I knew that I had finished. I felt very grateful to the experience, to the people, to life, to the cities that made me who I am. One of the great things that I learned is that any sense of pride is false. We are who we are with our weakness and incapacity. And this is something that we should keep.
Matt Morrison has published in Film Comment, the New York Observer, and The Onion. He writes at morrisonmatthew.tumblr.com.