FestBeat: Tamer El Said’s haunted film premieres at the Berlinale

Although some have noted that the number of films screening from the Arabic-speaking region is not significantly higher this year compared to last year, there is certainly a lot of media hype this year around Arab cinema at the Berlinale.

There’s been a lot of talk, for example, about the Tunisian film Inhebeck Heidi (Mohammed Ben Attia, 2016) being the first Arab film in a long time in the Berlinale’s official competition — at least since Paradise Now in 2005.

And the presence of films by Arab filmmakers is felt in the queues that are forming outside the cinemas here: People want to watch these films, and that’s more encouragement in my opinion than film numbers can give.

For the world premiere of Egyptian filmmaker Tamer El Said’s long-awaited first fiction feature, In the Last Days of the City (Akher Ayam al-Madina) on February 14, tickets sold out quickly and a long queue formed outside the CineStar cinema at the heart of Berlin. In the Last Days of the City has been in the making for the past 10 years, and over that time its production has facilitated the coming together of many creative individuals from across the Arab world, all working in some way or another in so-called independent cinema.

The film opens with yellow-drenched images of Cairo. A fiction film with no specific narrative arc, it might give the sense of improvisation, but Said’s control over the image and the actors’ performance quickly becomes apparent. Locations are precisely designed, actors’ movements in relationship to the frame clearly pre-planned and the camera’s movements are distinctly calculated. Because we become aware of the camera’s function in the creation of the image, the film self-reflectively interrogates its very mechanisms of representation.

In the Last Days of the City follows the character of Khalid (played by Khalid Abdalla) as he wanders through the streets of downtown Cairo. He meets old friends, remembers a lover who is now about to leave the country with no plan to return, and at times picks up his camera and starts filming. Khalid is a filmmaker in the midst of a long film project that attempts to connect footage from three Arab cities all significantly changed by time and history: Beirut, Cairo and Baghdad. He tries to juggle work on his film with a futile search for a new apartment and taking care of his sick mother. He seems to be caught up in a tight circle he is unable to get out of. This is one reason for the sense of breathlessness I felt as I watched the film develop.

A heavy reliance on extreme close-ups creates a temporal and spatial relationship to the image that heightens the film’s mythological, fairy-tale aspects. At times In the Last Days of the City recalls Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Both films use close-ups of faces to create a sense of the sublime — a state of intense psychological resonance marked by a search for meaning, and indeed a deep recognition of the unfathomable aspects of life. These are aspects that remain unacknowledged in the everyday, and thus the experience of watching In the Last Days of the City is disjointed from daily temporality, raising questions about our habitual sensorial engagement with the world. Time and space are in flux at the moments of subliminal distress the film offers, so our relationship to them is ready to be reconstituted.

Perhaps this is the most significant political undercurrent in the film: Allowing the viewer to rethink time and space along the lines of a more fluid model is a step toward realizing a new understanding of our relationship to the past, and to key historical events like the January 25 revolution. The events of 2011 haunt the film from beginning to end.

In the Last Days of the City was shot and, on a narrative level, takes place in 2009 and 2010, although it has been in editing since then and only recently finished. The images invoke absence, forgetfulness maybe, a sense of an invisible within the visible.

The camera’s way of looking at the world creates a haunted image that gestures toward a future that can’t yet be seen, but already bubbles underneath the present moment. Especially as it captures the many statues in the squares of downtown Cairo, the relationship of the present to history is repeatedly invoked. But the disillusionment of the characters with their surroundings is as much a matter of relief as of deep distress. This, for me, is the most innovative aspect of In the Last Days of the City and its key contribution to Egyptian filmmaking: It helps us, especially as people from the Arabic-speaking world, to see the world differently.

In the Last Days of the City, Said’s first fiction feature, is distributed by Zawya Distributions, so expect it to screen in Cairo in the near future. Meanwhile, over the coming days I’ll be updating you on the most important highlights the selection at the 66th Berlinale, especially in relationship to Arab filmmaking, so stay tuned. FestBeat is back!

Nour El Safoury 

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