In the Last Days of the City Tamer El Said (Egypt 2016) Khalid Abdallah
Viewed: 25 May 2019 Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle; ticket £7
film as state of mind
What a mix of impressions has gone into this film. Afterwards it seemed like the triumph of idea over content. El Said’s movie is a fictionalised documentary that replaces his own persona with that of an actor, and comprises a number of elements that run through the syntaxical elements of modernistic film expression. In asequential composition he conjoins the personal the impersonal and the expressive to create an assemblage of images and impressions. But to what end, with what purpose, surely in a film of this kind there must be intention, even if it does not immediately reveal itself?
El Said films a wide gamut of locations presenting us with scenes from the cutting room, fictionalised scenes from his alter ego’s mother’s death bed, fictionalised scenes from a difficult relationship, scenes drawn from recalled memory of the city of Alexandria, strips of action from Tahrir Square and the Egyptian 2010 Africa Cup matches, and scenes from other Arab cities, Damascus and Beirut. These scenes are presented as discrete strips of action intercut with particular shots of Cairo, mostly filmed as tracks conveying the everyday sights in the city: its chaos, its poverty, its impenetrability.
The film has been shot through a sepia caul that renders what we see as something immanent but out of reach. El Said’s sepia colourant device lends an existential mist to the material, a sulphurous layering that in itself brings into focus the relationship of the seer to what is seen. State of mind. ‘Last Days’ calls to mind literary forebears of existential doubt such as Sartre’s Road to Freedom trilogy in which the question posed is whether intellectual cognizance and awareness induce a paralyzed self consciousness that creates a barrier to feeling participation and action. In Last Days, Khalid like one of Sartre’s protagonists is caste as a permanent outsider trapped in self alienation.
El Said’s presents images that are strained through the seeing of the outsider, Khalid. We are shown what he sees. Looking at El Said’s film in in this light provides a clue to understanding the nature of the way he uses his interlinking general shots of Cairo. I found these shots difficult. Whilst arresting, in fact they said nothing only filling out the film with images of the exotic or bizarre. Some the shots, for instance the mannequins seen in the shop window, were familiar filmic tropes, formulaic with no necessary connection to the city.
Some film makers insert such ‘ ’scape’ shots into their films as token affirmations that they are invoking deeper layers of symbolism in their film; a nod to the cosmic order. Usually, used in this way landscape or whatever scape, are no more that pretentious interludes. I believe, in that he is making a movie invoking state of mind, that El Said’s images of Cairo are not problematic in this way. That in ‘Last Days’ these images of Cairo are intended to point precisely to the problematic nature of his seeing, of seeing in general. The shots are the gaze of El Said. As such they say something about him in relation to his city. That he is trapped in his gaze and unable to move off and away from the surface of the image.
Trapped in the image El Said is the archetypal exemplar of the media class as a social group. But the problem with continuous insertion of the Cairo street material throughout the Last Days, is that of repetition. State of mind is the medium through which “Last Days’ is filmed. Half way through the film you understand that what is being represented is gaze. But there is no development. Like looking at a friend’s picture album: the shots all start to seem the same. Perhaps this in the point, but the film lacks a dynamic and catalyst to provoke even one moment of awareness: Godard style graphics or a voiced element, cutting into the material and offsetting image.
Khalid’s friends and fellow film makers from Baghdad and Beirut are more anchored in the realities of their cities. They experience the pain and hardship of living in a place where so much is smashed – bodies buildings lives hope. But Khalid lives in the enervated sepia world of Cairo, overwhelmed by the city overwhelmed by the weight of the image. He looks on at the momentous events stirred by revolution in Tahrir Square and finds only, that as image they are no different from the inconsequential hysteria of the Africa Cup of Nations. The crowds in the square the crowds celebrating Egyptian football are juxtaposed and interchangeable. Something to gaze on.
This same feeling infects the personal, relations experienced as an existential distance. His mother and his girlfriend, both in different ways take their leave of him, one through the grave, the other by an airplane. Both intimate farewells experienced as distant events long foreseen and submitted to in their inevitability.
The problem with ‘Last Days of the City’ is that, locked into existential state of mind as its defining mode, an invariance governs the material. A similar point can be made about Sartre’s novels, that once the characterisation falters they become dull; the lead characters simply ciphers for an idea. Restricting himself to a limited palette of filmic representation, holding the line of representing the gaze, the film teeters on falling into inconsequentiality, mimicking the film’s running joke about Khalid’s search for an apartment. This may be El Said’s intention. It may be the film is a testament to the perception that to make films at this time in this place is a misconstrued enterprise. There are other and better ways to communicate, forge understanding action and relationships.