12 viewers on In the Last Days of the City and its problems coming to Egypt

Last week, Cairo’s Zawya Distribution announced that they will not be releasing In the Last Days of the City, by Egyptian filmmaker and Cimatheque co-founder Tamer El Said, in Egyptian cinemas as planned.

As they have not yet received approval from the Censorship Authority, the planned release date of March 22 came and went, leaving the distribution team and eager audiences wondering what the hold-up was about.

Said’s first feature film, which took ten years to make, premiered in Germany over a year ago and has toured more than 70 festivals internationally. After garnering nine awards, the film has just been commercially released in Poland and is due for further commercial releases around Europe and the Arab region in the coming weeks. “It’s even screening in Honolulu,” the filmmaker tells me.

But Cairo, which is a major protagonist in the film, has been denied the honor of seeing it. The film was the subject of controversy last year when it was abruptly pulled from the official competition of the Cairo International Film Festival, apparently due to its already hefty festival run — although the other competing films had also toured major festivals prior to coming to Cairo.

Last month the film was also pulled from the first Sharm el-Sheikh International Film Festival, which cited the lack of a permit for screenings — even though films screened at Egyptian festivals do not require general screening permits or censorship approval.

Both these incidents, along with the censors’ continual delay in providing permission for its cinematic release, suggest that the state has a problem with the film being shown to Egyptians.

As someone who hasn’t seen the film, this has left me wondering what it is about In the Last Days of the City that’s so special, and why the state might try to block a film that reflects on living in Cairo just before the 2011 revolution. So I asked 12 people who have seen the film at festivals around the world to comment briefly on it.

In Berlin: Amal Ramsis, 43, filmmaker

The persistence in not showing the film essentially ensures that Egyptian cinema remains only within the realms of commercial cinema and tackling subjects that matter to no one. New cinema and different art reflects the rebellious nature that exists in Egypt’s reality and this seems to be what they want to suppress. I see no reason to stop any kind of film from showing. Egyptian audiences are not minors that need someone to tell them what they can or cannot watch. It’s extremely disappointing that we are still discussing the role the censor plays in controlling our minds as if it’s normal.

The film discusses a very important historical moment in the life of every Egyptian, the time that preceded the January 25 revolution. Because our memory is short and fragile, it plays an important role in preserving our recollection of our own history. Artistically speaking, the film is among a few Egyptian films made in recent years which have a high degree of experimentation in terms of its cinematic language and courage in moving freely between fiction and documentary. It was made in the midst of a serious crisis in the film industry, which brings hope that some filmmakers still have the ability to create freely and put forward courageous topics despite the current circumstances, which can strangle any talent.

In Beirut: Caroline Hatem, 40, actor

The fact that the protagonist’s ex-lover needs to flee the country because she lacks freedom, the fact that religious extremism is growing, the fact that the whole Arab world is suffering, that historical buildings are falling apart and that a certain youth is offering up strong resistance: All of this is shown in such a subtle and flowing way, without any commentary or highlight. Through the main characters – the filmmaker, his friends, his ex-lover, the acting teacher –Tamer El Said references a society that is close to disappearing, that has become minor. A society of consciousness and love that is still producing thought and masterpieces. The movie represents a global deterioration, a sort of implosion, and it tracks the last bits of poetry and beauty. Perhaps it is precisely because of its intelligence and refinement that it is considered provocative. 

In New York: Tarek Hefny, 34, cinematographer

It is a very personal and emotional film that took several years to produce, and you can feel that time while watching the film. It’s not about one event or several incidents — it is raising questions about the relationship between the person and the place they consider home. The film is very sensitive in handling these questions and doesn’t impose the filmmaker’s own opinion. With this approach you find a rarely seen, honest portrayal of the cities we live in around the Middle East. Honesty and self-reflection are not our forte in Egypt. Maybe this is why they’re trying not to show the film in theaters. I really can’t find any other reason.

In Berlin: Sarah El Miniawy, 36, works in music PR and management

There is a strong sense of community surrounding this film, its international success and how such a game-changing production was achieved on independent terms. There is a lot of power in all this and I think it is too much to come to terms with for individuals, entities and institutions that are used to monopolizing power. I came out feeling a sense of pride in the leap this work made in production standards: the editing, cinematography, narrative structure and the overall style are all quite unusual for contemporary Egyptian cinema. The fact that the Cairo International Film Festival and the authorities don’t recognize such an achievement just goes to show how limited their view of art is.

In Beirut and on Festival Scope Pro website: Laura Marks, 53, writer, film programmer and professor

In the Last Days of the City does include scenes of public protests that happened back in 2010 (I believe), which could be seen as criticism of the Mubarak government and by extension the Sisi government. But these scenes are simply factual.

I really like that it takes a long historical view of recent events, having been shot before 2011 and edited after, and I think this can help people reflect on long-term political issues in Egypt. And as I said, it speaks of experiences shared among people in different Arab countries in a way that can be inspiring, even though it is wistful. The audience I was with was very moved to see the waters of the Nile in Cairo, the Mediterranean in Beirut and the Tigris in Baghdad — it was as though these bodies of water connected the people in ways that words alone cannot. I would think the authorities would be happy to approve a film that envisions Cairo as the centre of a newly arising feeling of pan-Arab identity, even if it’s a sad feeling, given the way it brings together filmmakers from Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad, and the diaspora to reflect on the lives of their cities and the things they all hold dear.

In New York: Samah Selim, 50, university professor

The film is obviously relevant enough to show in Cairo now and for the foreseeable future because it’s a really profound meditation on the struggle over the meaning of the self in relation to the city at a profound juncture in history. Cairenes today are still trying to come to terms with this meaning and all kinds of questions about personal and collective failure vis-à-vis the revolution. It makes powerful connections between Cairo and other contemporary naksa cities (Beirut, Baghdad, etc).

In Chicago: Mohamed Radwan, 36, filmmaker

The film talks about the phase before the revolution, the protests and the problems at the time when Tamer El Said made the film. He imagines something could happen. In culture circles, people thought it would be a hunger revolution, then Tunisia happened. I saw the film with a group of Egyptians in Chicago, and we spent hours after discussing how important it is. It’s important that it is shown in Egypt because it will remind us of how it was to live in the city at that time. People now need something like this because we need to relive the state we used to live in to heal ourselves from our traumas.

In Beirut: Evan Hill, 31, writer and researcher

The film is many things, including a love letter to Cairo. Or rather a hate note and a love letter rolled into one. It captures the way the city can infatuate you and slap you in the face at the same time. It captures a very specific moment, the years leading up to the uprising, more beautifully than any other film I’ve seen. I have several issues with the film, but it does a beautifully subtle job of presenting Cairo as a character, and for that reason alone I think the people of Cairo need to see it.

In Montreal: Walid Khachab, 51, university professor

Not allowing the film to be released shows how culture is not understood by the authorities. The film doesn’t contain any direct message to any political power, it’s a cinematic poem on the idea of a city portraying the character of cultured artists in four different cities, so I see no reason for halting its release. The internet will allow hundreds of young people to get pirated copies of the film and watch it online. Banning the film is the biggest media campaign for it.

In a private screening: Ahmed Nabil, 33, filmmaker

It is a film that not only took ten years to make but also a large number of crew, many of whom were not from Egypt. It’s a lesson in independent production that is disconnected from the market in some way. Its content revolves around the relationship with the city, which is a scarcely covered topic in Egyptian cinema.

In Boston: Ramy Allam, 33, dentist

The film expresses the general feeling of discontent and defeat in Egypt in particular, and the Arab world more broadly, on the verge of the Arab spring. It is an important cinematic document narrating a social and emotional state of a generation of dreamers that attempted to change their reality. It’s a film on identity and the sense of belonging in an environment that does not stop trying to defeat you with its dullness.

In Nantes and Marseilles: Youssra El Hawary, 33, Musician

The importance of showing In the Last Days of the City for me lies in the fact that no films should be prevented from screening. Each cinematic experience should have its opportunity to be shown to the public and either succeed or fail. Its director did not compromise on the time or effort needed to produce it. It’s a truly honest and aware model for serious cinema that can be exemplary for others.

I don’t think In the Last Days of the City crossed any lines or presented topics that haven’t been presented before. In fact I find other films have been shown in the last two years more controversial than this film, which poses several questions here: What is the criteria for allowing a film to be screened? What are the topics or scenes that the state sees as problematic for the Egyptian viewer? For how much longer will creating art be at risk to decisions we don’t understand, or interventions by other authorities? I see that our most basic right as artists — since we have to overcome the challenges of production — is to at least have some clarity.

Rowan El Shimi 
Culture journalist

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