Tamer El Said: “I wanted to capture the soul of Cairo” (In the Last Days of the City)

Tamer El Said (DR)

This summer, France Culture broadcast a set of programs with Daniel Arasse, a travel through the paintings that have been significant for him. In the first show, I hear pieces of what he says about painting and I’ve probably a sensibility and a memory more auditive than when I read his work. I believe in the embodiment of the thought, in its power when it comes to be expressed at loud. The space is then inhabited, reasoning and resonating, and I, shunted in it. The poet Arasse is “soaked up by the painting”. “It rises, it takes you”, he says. This precise morning, his voice soaks me up too, whereas I’m still inhabited and overwhelmed by the projection of a film I saw the evening before. In the last days of the city (Akher ayam el madina) by Tamer El Said.

I look in vain, for what happened. I cried at the end, overcomed by the images. There was no thought. Nevertheless, I don’t want to believe that way. The last times it occurred to me in the same way, it was with the introduction of Andreï Roublev or the end of The Mirror. The opening with this panoramic plan on the details of the tapestry and its unveiling came under the sublime. In the second, that’s the ending in the forest where the generations mix themselves in music in a total countless time.

I don’t cry anymore. No. For nothing. True deaths have dried out something. Stories move me, touch me, but don’t make me cry. I mourn before Shoah, which command silence, extreme prudishness. I cry before the death of Weronika in The Double Life of Veronique, a song for his late mother in Fausta – La Teta Asustada, before Hotaru no haka (Grave of the fireflies), at the end of The Griefs of Others, Still Walking or Imitation of Life… These are probably re-experiences of mourning. A magic and mortifying thing at the same time.

But it’s not that by now. This is not the story, my attachment to the characters, or even an idea crossing the film although everything is masterfully present. I literally drowned myself into the images, the sound, the montage. A paradox. I may try to talk about the movie, by pieces, with infinite biases, but the speech doesn’t replace the experience. It’s a constant passing. The final camera-look of the main character at the end of the movie fills me with happiness and tranquility. It’s all here, in a non-time, in an in-between, an adjournment. It says to me: nothing is all right, but it’s going to be all right.

Rather than my own words, I prefer let Tamer El Said speak :

Writing the script, you worked with Rasha Salti. How came the envy to make this film?

I leave in Cairo. I grew up there. Basically, the city made me who I am. I was asking myself if it was possible at all to capture the soul of this city in a two-hours film. The city is very complicated, multi-layered and has a sophisticated structure. So, when we tried to squeeze it in two hours, we simplify things in a way that makes this structure loses its depth. This question chased me for ten years : How can we find a way to capture a city inside a film?

On the other side, I think Cairo is a very photogenic city and I wanted to learn how to film it. And when I’m saying I want to film the city, I mean filming the soul of the city, not its image. I spent a lot of time thinking of that while I was questioning the filmmaking method I want to adopt. When you make the film so structured and planned in your head, you also don’t allow yourself to accept the gifts that the city could give you. Of course, it’s a very complicated process because you work with a team of many people and you need to communicate things to them… That’s why it’s necessary to prepare and planed your work. So I wanted to find the balance between preparing enough and keeping things open to be developed during the filmmaking process itself.

That is precisely the aspect I tried to manage with Rasha, while we were writing the script. This openness had to start from the script. We wanted to weave the stories together but allow the actors, the rest of the team, the city, and the life around us to inspire us during the shooting. I wanted to follow the film and not the other way around. There is a very thin line between following the film or make the film following you. I feel when you make the film following you, It’s all about ego, not about what the film needs. This makes you more humble in a way. When Rasha and I were working on the script, we just tried to make it as a maquette for the film, like a blue print. It has to be precise but at the same time open to be developed during the shooting.

I always say when you make a fiction film, you are like a farmer: you water your seeds and take care of your plants while they are growing every day. Your work depends on patience, and giving the time. But when you make a documentary, you are like a fisherman, you go to the sea, you throw your net hopping that the sea will be generous and give you some fishes. Part of your job is to believe that the sea is generous. Without this, the sea will not give you anything. In that decade of making In the Last Days of the City, I wanted to learn the balance between being a farmer and being a fisherman.

The film is premiered almost ten years after you started to shoot. Could you explain why this gap?

Of course, it is a valid and I would say a common question. It’s due to different reasons. First, while we were making the film, there was a big revolution in my country (Editor’s note : in January 2011) who affected me in a way. During this period, I wasn’t always able to lock myself inside an editing room and leave everything happening outside, especially in the beginning of the revolution. In a way, I wanted to live this moment and be part of it as it was a moment when my country was changing forever.

The second thing is the conditions I had to face to make that movie exist. In Egypt, we don’t have an infrastructure that is able to carry this kind of projects, so we needed to build the entire infrastructure by ourselves while we are making the film itself. I would say that 95% of my time and effort was dedicated to set up the conditions that allow us to make the movie the way we wanted more than making the film itself.

In addition, it was very important for me in such a project to work with the right people. You don’t make a film alone, you need people with you, people who can carry the weight of the film, which is not easy. They are very rare and it’s not easy to find them especially if you don’t have money. So, finding a way to bring them together, try to organize a schedule with a team of people coming from ten different countries, was not an easy thing to do. The film wasn’t clear on paper as you can imagine. I was a first-time filmmaker. Nobody believed that I was able to deliver the film and I was regularly rejected when I applied to any fund. I was advised to put this film aside, make another simpler one to introduce myself to the industry and then make this one later. I felt like if they were telling me to forget about someone I love to love someone else, and then come back to the first one, which is impossible and absurd.

We had only 15% of our budget when we started to shot the film, and we didn’t had time to find the other part. We had to start because everybody was ready and we had this momentum that if we lost it, the film would never exist. We were facing a situation like “it’s now or never”. Everyone was advising not to start shooting without, at least, have the money needed to finish but we decided to start. It was like jumping into the unknown. Of course it was a nightmare but it was also the most beautiful experience. We had to shoot a bit and then stop to look for money and come back to shoot again then repeat this circle again and again. All the classical stages of making a film (write the script, search for a producer, make a finical plan, shooting, editing) were completely mixed-up. Sometimes, I was editing while I wasn’t even finish shooting. The editing itself was part of the writing, a kind of rewriting the script.

I would finally say that the last reason for the ten years is that I needed time to understand and to reflect all these things. As you know, it’s a very personal film. I couldn’t just carry on the film without thinking of what was happening around me. The film is not about the revolution, it’s about the moment before. I tried to capture the feeling we had in Egypt before the revolution, like if something big was going to happen. We didn’t know what it was, but it was clear that we couldn’t continue like that and the country was boiling. The revolution happened six weeks after we finished the shooting. So the whole filming was done with a kind of a fore sight while the editing happened with hindsight. In this situation, I was always moving between these two moments before and after. I wanted to stay loyal to the film I wanted to do.

I didn’t wanted to make a movie about the revolution. It happened many times that producers or sales agents asked me to just add one scene of the revolution in the end of the film with a promise that they will support the film financially. But I didn’t because I felt that was just another film. I kept saying that it’s a film about the moment before the revolution. It’s important to understand from where we came to be able to see where we are going.

Of course, at a certain point, the delay looked like a curse that was chasing the film. I woke up every day thinking of quitting because I was somewhat alone. Nobody believed I was able to make it, even some of my friends. I had the reputation of an obsessive person, a perfectionist that is not able to leave his work (laughs). I completely understand why people think that, but in the same time, I knew I needed this time. This film came from a deep need, an urgency. I did it for me, because I needed to. Ideally, a good film is always coming from a strong urgency. I even think that it’s the kind of urgency that pushes you to make it otherwise you will commit suicide. Of course, that wasn’t the case, but I’m trying to say how urgent the motivation to make the film should be. If you think that way, that means the director needs the film, no one else.

I was especially struck by the photography, yellow and contrasted that frame the film in an oneiric and warm tonality. How did you managed with director of photography Bassem Fayad? What were the effects you wanted?

First of all, Bassem is my best friend. I really love him, he is such a beautiful person and a wonderful artist. He also plays in the film. We talked a lot about the language of the image, and how the camera is working with the characters. This is something very important because I feel that when you film, it’s not only about how to move the camera. It’s more how you create the connection between the camera and the characters. I find it very difficult in cinema. In my opinion, without this connection, the film couldn’t and never works. It took us time. At the beginning, the first two weeks of shooting, neither me nor him were happy of the result. I felt that there was something wrong in the language we were using. My purpose was to find a balance between roughness and elegancy. I think we finally started to find the way when we decided to be more open and surrender to the city.

For me, Khalid is trying to capture something that is permanently escaping between his fingers. He has this urgency to film things before they collapse and disappear. This is something we tried to convey in the image; missing the sharpness at some moments. He’s trying to get things clearer to him. It was risky because when you pull the focus out, you might miss some beautiful moments. But it’s a risk we decided to take nevertheless. The whole thinking come from this idea that we wanted to be open to take certain risks. Since the beginning, we wanted the film to have this yellow appearance to reflect this feeling of loneliness and bring a kind of a desert atmosphere. We wanted to create the felling of something that is heating up in the city, helped by the color of the sun in Cairo. That’s more or less what we tried to do. We were open to discover this language together.

There’s a film in the film. You move from the wide screen to the montage room by frame-by-frame, flashbacks, as to play with the limits between fiction and reality, two stories mixed up. Khalid, the director and main character is endlessly questioning his art. Did you want to express your own difficulties to achieve your film? Is it a way to question the porosity of the different levels of reality?

It’s a very good question! You know, I have an Egyptian passport. And this passport creates a lot of problems for me, especially when I come to Europe. In general, I hate airports. Airports are places that remind us of how we are not equal. That’s why I grew-up hating borders. So, I would like to look at my work as something trying to remove all these borders between fiction and documentary, reality and stories, and between the cities. I wanted the film to fly as a kite, to be multilayered as an artichoke or an onion, and to be a train that doesn’t stop. It’s like a dance with city. To have all this we needed to find a structure that gives us the needed freedom.

The structure of the film within a film was very dangerous. It was used many times and it might be considered as a “cliché” especially for a first time filmmaker. Everybody advised me against using this structure because of this but I believe you can always create something new inside the cliché. This is why I wanted to try it.

We don’t know anything about Khalid in the film. He is not character that we follow and he doesn’t have a story. What we know about him is very rare. For me, Khalid is like a mirror that is reflecting the different layers of the city, as if we see things through his eyes. That’s why I felt this structure would help to give the freedom to move freely between the different lines and layers of the city.

On the other side, you’re right, while I was shooting the film, I was seeing in Khalid what was going to happen to me later, spending many years trying to finish it. This allowed me to reflect a lot, to grow, to understand many things about my life, my past and my relation to things around me. That was the urgency to make this film in the first place.

I see the film as a wandering, an existential quest, I would say like in the Antonioni’s films. When Khalid visits apartments, in which he never feels right. Does it reflect the reality of his exiled friends?

That’s what I was saying about Khalid as a mirror of the city. But yes, this journey spent to try and find the right apartment is connected to the question of “what home means?”. It’s a story of someone who is trying to connect with the city but along his journey, becomes more and more a stranger in his hometown.

As looking at the Tahrir’s Place, Khalid says, « there’s something elusive in all this ». I feel as if it is shown in your way of filming the city, the crowd: in close-up, blurreds, reflects, swings that make an organic pulse.

Yes, that’s what we wanted to create. While I was walking in these streets during the making of the film, I used to tell myself that when we film people, when we film places, the camera has to ask, not to answer. It’s slightly different position. I like to remind myself that it’s not my job to give answers because I simply don’t know better than anyone. The film was trying to build the layers of the city by questioning them.

In several places, I couldn’t stop myself to think of Kieslowski. Through the photography, Khalid taken in the events, as Weronika in Prague, the character of this old women coming back in the street, this suspended magnifying glass… Is it a coincidence or an homage?

Of course! I particularly like his early films a lot. He is a great filmmaker. I never thought of the old lady that way as she is someone I know and I just wanted to have her in the film. But your question makes me think yes maybe I carry the character from another film. If you see her as an homage to Kieslowski, I’m very happy.

Your characters seem to question themselves upon death. Khalid is looking for answers on his father, he’s filming his sick mother on her bed, the characters he asks in his film talk about their experience of mourning. In what way is it a theme that concerns you?

Actually, I lost my sister when I was very young. The story of Khalid’s sister in the film is the story of my own sister who died in a car accident while my father was driving. The mother in the film is my real mother. Since I was young, I experienced this feeling of loss and it marked my soul forever. Later on, I think this fear of being abandoned kept scaring me. I think I became a filmmaker because I thought filming things makes them immortal, a way to keep the people I love around me. When I lost my father, I realized that I didn’t film him and this made me so sad. I think the film is dealing with this idea of loss and how to cope with it in different levels.

Hassan, played by Hayder Helo, has this terrible sentence in a meeting: « life prospers in times of war ». Later, he says to his friends he cannot go back to Bagdad, that it’s not a city, it’s a feeling, a friend. Could you explain what he means by that?

It’s something related to the reality of this region, always represented in the news as a place full of death, war and terrorism. People are always reduced to numbers in the mainstream Medias. Like “today, 40 people were killed, 70 people injured…etc”. But in fact, we have a very strong relation to life. We value life so much because of this continual death around us. In a city like Bagdad, that seems like the most dangerous place in the world, there are people who are full of life trying to fly with their souls even if the reality is insane. These people and these cities are much more than an image of an attack by terrorists. This is also what the film is  trying to do, challenging the stereotypes we have about this region for a very long time.

There’s also an obvious contrast between your characters ideals and the Egyptian society : injunctions to not to look at the women sticked up, military men in the streets, a man beated up, another beating his wife, homeless persons. In background, are these occurrences a way to denounce the weight of the religion, the police state, the violence, the domestic violence, the social inequality?

I’m not trying to judge this things, it’s more like if I wanted to look at them and share my questions about them. The scene when the man is beating the woman on the rooftop is raising questions about the role of a filmmaker. Does he have the right to film them? What does he do with these images? There is also a class issue here. He is privileged in his apartment, standing behind the window and able to film them. Those are the questions I was asking myself when I was filming in Cairo.

On the other hand, the film raises also questions about the role of the state, the police, the politics and the religion to create the “official” narrative, which is not our narrative. This is the real struggle. Which story will be told and have a life? I think our role as filmmakers is to support the alterative narrative that is telling the stories that are never told. On a different level, the film is also dealing with the dichotomy of dictatorship and religion. In this region we are always caught between someone want to kill you in the name of God and someone wants to kill you in the name of the State.

And, when the film has been released in Egypt, how did the public react? Did you encountered censorship?

Sadly, the film was never released in Egypt. I tried for almost a year to release the film, dedicated all my energy for that but the censorship never issued the permits to show the film. It a big scar that never heal as it’s a film about a city that won’t be seen by its people.

Lastly, I’d like you to tell me some few words about the incredible shot where Khalid seems suspended on the edge of the window. I thought he was about to commit suicide…

This is not what I meant but I understand why some people think he’s about to commit suicide because when someone opens a windows and stay like this, we usually except from him to jump. But for me it’s a mix of him trying to get his anger out while he is completely despaired. At the same time, he is trying to break his bubble and connect himself with the pulse of the city that is rejecting him. Maybe, the thought of jumping came to his mind also and that’s why the scene is open to different interpretation. At this moment, he is realizing that things are closer than what he thought and maybe he, himself, is a part of what he is facing.

In the Last Days of the City. 2016. Director : Tamer El Said. Writers : Tamer El Said, Rasha Salti. Actors : Khalid Abdalla, Laila Samy, Hanan Youssef…