In the Last Days of the City presents a resounding yet elegiac portrait of Cairo, one the world’s most teeming and ancient centers.
Cairo is perhaps the oldest city in the world and among the most populous. The political and social tumult that has transpired in its streets is enough to fill a library of volumes and the diversity and sheer quantity of its current denizens is practically incalculable. In In the Last Days of the City, director Tamer El Said sets out to capture this city, to somehow frame within the scope of his camera lens its vitality, beauty and contradictions. He cannot manage this task, for any city as monumental as Cairo is always ineffable, ephemeral and even ethereal—it is a place worthy of the lofty appellation granted it here: “the City.” But what he offers viewers is still cinematic magic.
El Said has set his film in 2009, which is not a year where Cairo was the epicenter of some event of world-historical importance. It is, however, an auspicious choice; while there are no events of political enormity transpiring, Cairo can never be boring. It is too full—of life, of complex problems, of air pollution and of wonder-inducing quotidian moments—to ever be dull. Plus, El Said cleverly inserts politics into nearly every scene, either through diegetic news radio detailing the events of the day or by panning the camera across masses of protesters and riot police.
Cairo is on the precipice: the world-historical stuff is happening in Iraq and Gaza, near Egypt both culturally and geographically but not in Egypt itself; but also, big things coming to Cairo seems eminent. Viewers know more about what is to happen than In the Last Days of the City’s characters, who can perhaps feel the coming Arab Spring and the occupation of Tahrir Square, but cannot be certain of the details of its arrival like the viewer can. The impending eruption of social discontent and subsequent fall of Mubarak lend the film an energy, a certain something with which many of the scenes sizzle, even though El Said ends the story well before 2011. The political events are there, a pall hanging over every scene; they are there also in the title of the film—the end is nigh.
The protagonist is Khalid (Khalid Abdalla), a documentary filmmaker struggling to finish his film. In the Last Days of the City does not concern itself with what Khalid’s scattershot film is about, but instead focuses on his artistic struggle to satisfactorily photograph Cairo. Khalid bumbles about, trying to solve the puzzle of capturing Cairo. He is also upset about breaking up with his partner and neurotically searching for a new apartment.
At first, In the Last Days of the City is too nebulous about its content and too heavy-handed in its visual metaphors (so many out-of-focus shots!), alienating the viewer. It is not slow; it is glacial. Where the film finally finds its momentum—the pace never picks up but becomes enjoyable nevertheless—is when Khalid is joined by three out-of-town friends who are also documentarians. Two are Iraqi, though one has left Baghdad to take up residence as a refugee in Berlin, and the other is Lebanese. Khalid’s three friends have also battled with how evasive cities are for the camera; they, too, cannot capture their hometowns. They make a pact to share footage of their cities with one another, to inspire Khalid to finish his film.
From here, In the Last Days of the City simply languidly traces the next several weeks of Khalid’s life. For him personally, there are many events, mostly tragic, that take place, but for the film’s plot and structure, not much happens until the climactic moments. In the Last Days of the City simply resides, both in Khalid’s professional and personal struggles, but also in a Cairo that is about to be transformed by political violence. While it inhabits the city that is its real subject, the film demonstrates a great deal of craft. The cinematography, when not annoyingly tinkering with focus, is especially stunning, thanks in part to the dense air pollution of Cairo but mostly because of the immense skill involved in the filmmaking.
Even though In the Last Days of the City does not find the essence of Cairo and vivify it for the camera, it does present a resounding yet elegiac portrait of one the world’s most teeming and ancient centers. With Khalid as avatar, viewers are treated to a directionless and beautiful tour through the labyrinthine streets of one of the birthplaces of human civilization. It imbues this with a foreboding sense of impending cataclysm. For both the characters in the film and the filmmakers and viewers of the film, In the Last Days of the City is an archival document of a Cairo before, a Cairo on the brink, a Cairo sensing an apocalypse; but of course, Cairo has endured for 5000 years and many such apocalypses and so it has persisted since the Arab Spring and ensuing political collapse, too. The last days of this city are still in the future.