Cairo, 2008. It will still more than two years before the uprisings of January 2011 that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s violent deposition. But in the eyes of Cairene filmmaker Tamer El Said, those were already the last days of the city, as he proclaims in the title of his movie, presented at the Berlin Film Festival. In fact, the events leading to the Tahrir Square revolution had been adding up for decades, El Said says.
A creator of short films and documentaries, El Said decided to tell this story differently, through a fictional feature film, the first in his career. But its scenes were shot on the streets of his hometown that he travels every day.
Born in 1972 in Egypt’s capital, Tamer El Said graduated from the High Institute of Cinema. He founded a production company and the Cinematheque, a place for nurturing independent cinema in Cairo.
His desire to make In the Last Days of the City was born in 2006: “I was haunted by events that happened in my life and in my country, and I felt the urgency of making a movie to understand them.”
The inspiration was so compelling that by the time he raised 15 percent of his budget, he’d already started filming. “Without enough people, always lacking money,” he says. That’s why the shooting process, scheduled to last three months, went on for two years. Which turned out to be a good thing: “It’s the reason why the whole period preceding the events of 2011 was recorded on camera.”
What did you mean by “the last days of the city”?
At the time there was the feeling that something was about to happen, that we couldn’t go on like that and that the “end” was near. And this end caused contrasting feelings in me: On the one hand I wanted it to come, for us to be able to start over. On the other hand I was afraid that it would wipe out everything that I loved. I have always deemed what I do as part of the process of becoming a better person, of raising questions and reflecting on them.
It was also important to convey the idea that what happened in January 2011 didn’t happen out of the blue but rather it built up over time. At the same time I was immersed in the city’s “language,” I was hoping to learn how to film Cairo. I think it’s a very photogenic city with its beauty. And to me, shooting it didn’t mean framing tourist postcards. I wanted to capture its soul, to find a way for the spectator to experience the feelings caused by the city.
The movie merges fiction and documentary in the first person.
I always say that certain movies are autobiographical and others are personal. Mine is a personal one: I don’t find anything interesting enough to be told in my private experience. But most of all it wasn’t important to me to mix reality and fiction, but rather to play with the genre, trying to find my own voice, my own way of using images and sound. I have always thought that images and sound can be used for different purposes: translate emotions and thoughts, ask questions, give answers.
My main intent was to understand where I come from, what shapes me and makes me who I am. I have grown up among Cairo’s turbulence, stuck between a dictatorship and religious extremism, trying to find a connection with a city that rejects me.
The movie shows a very important turning point in Egyptian history. How does it feel today to watch those images?
At times I would remain holed up in my apartment working on editing a scene for hours, then go out in the streets to see the same people, the same images that I was working on that were shot three years before. Therefore I often thought about what was changing and what remained the same, and about what those changes meant. It was like going from a starting point to a new one, a process that has a lot to teach, and above all raises many questions about our responsibility as filmmakers.
Is it dangerous in this moment to be a director doing this kind of film in Egypt?
It’s a dangerous situation regardless of what you do, whether you’re a filmmaker, a doctor or a teacher. The real problem is how to find the strength to wake up every day and keep doing your job while everything is against you.
What do you think of the murder in Cairo of the Italian researcher Giulio Regeni?
It’s another terrible event deriving from the lack of any basic security for people who do their job. A further proof of how difficult it is to remain faithful to reality, taking on the responsibility of documenting the truth, choosing to stay faithful to yourself and your job. It is a choice that takes you to a place where most likely there is no going back.