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Tamer El Said: Moments in Eternal Cities

The Future of Cities Special Issue: Sara Elkamel interviews Tamer El Said

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Photo courtesy of Tamer El Said

On a chilly March day in New York, tens of Egyptians gathered at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to pick at a wound that refuses to heal. In The Last Days Of The City, a film by Egyptian filmmaker Tamer El Said – his first feature – sent the audience back to pre-revolution Cairo – a moment throbbing with anxiety and promise. It was filmed between 2008 and December 2010 – exactly six weeks before the 2011 revolution.

In El Said’s film, Khalid, a thirty five year-old filmmaker played by Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner, The Square) tries to complete a film that captures the zeitgeist of Cairo. For this film within the film, he interviews Cairo dwellers and collects stories that revolve around death, loss, and regret. Meanwhile, he is elegantly agonizing over the loss of his ex-girlfriend, Laila, and struggling with the looming loss of an ailing mother. His long walks in the city are punctuated by frustrating, futile attempts at finding an apartment to rent in Downtown Cairo.

At least, Khalid friendships with fellow filmmakers Bassem, Hassan, and Tarek are going well. His friends live in Beirut, Baghdad, and Berlin, and in their conversations – at a coffee shop or a rooftop overlooking Tahrir Square – the four men discuss their love-hate relationships with the cities they refuse to leave or have already left.

Khalid is stuck: He dawdles through Downtown, carrying his past – as if physically on his shoulders – making no real headway on his film. Trying to help, his friends send footage from Beirut, Baghdad, and Berlin for Khalid to include in his Cairo film – creating a meditation on the meaning of place and togetherness.

The film took El Said close to a decade to complete. Screened now, five years after the revolution began, the film is a reminder of the moment when the body politic’s hope for a better future for the city, and the country, was unsullied by violence, rights violations, and complete, continued digression from the revolutionary course.

Egyptians in New York who saw the poster for the film, in which Khalid pensively looks over the decaying urbanscape of Downtown, must have gone to the screening knowing it would hurt: Because the beginning of the revolution – where this film leaves off – was also the beginning of its end. Yet, watching In The Last Days Of The City at a time when the city is once again charged with anger and discontent, perhaps they came away from the film with a tint of hope. Its title mischievously suggests that a city can end. But the film, above all, is a meditation on the idea of time, and the timelessness of cities.

The loneliness, loss, and suffocating frustration seeping through the film mirrored emotions that I have felt, in Cairo, in the past few years, and in fact, ones I had felt in New York over the past couple of years. A friend grabbed my hand after it was over and said: “This just fucked me up.” When the Q&A started, and I heard El Said ask, after describing the painful hold Cairo has over us: “Does it have to be this difficult? Why?” I heard myself say, “I have no fucking idea” before rushing out. The film was all I could take.

A few days later, I sat down with Tamer El Said at the Lincoln Center plaza, where his film was screening that week. In between long, reflective pauses, and as we watched the day’s last light fade through the glass, we talked about Cairo. We talked about New York. Two cities “we can’t control,” as El Said describes in the interview below. While In The Last Days Of The City did not enable El Said to control, or contain Cairo, he told me that in the process of making it, he was at least able to gain an understanding of his relationship to the city, and why it gets so difficult sometimes.

Sara Elkamel for Guernica Magazine.

Guernica: You’ve said previously that you started working on In The Last Days of the City with a need to understand your relationship to Cairo. Through the process, which lasted many years, what kind of insight did you gain about your relationship with the city?

Tamer El Said: For me, filmmaking is an ongoing self-reflection process. I kind of push everything to the edge. I feel very exposed and fragile when I make a film. It’s a process of dealing with loneliness. And it’s also very dramatic – because while you are working on a film, you just realize how incapable you are of dealing with all these things. And you open yourself up, and it’s like your heart is utterly exposed. And it’s very tiring on a daily basis.

Throughout this process, I pushed myself to the limit everyday, to understand my relationship to this city – which is very big, and very dominant. It has this kind of mix between arrogance and tenderness. I tried to find a way of accepting the city and accepting how the city is treating us. And also to gain a better understanding of my position inside this structure.

I woke up everyday and I asked myself: What should I do today to deal with this madness? It’s complex and multi-layered, this place. But we usually take it in as one big thing.

And in the process of making the film, I came to understand many things. Like why I failed to love someone. Or why someone failed to love me. Or why I was abandoned. Or why I’m longing for these smells or these places or these people. And it also gave me the chance to place myself in this daily process with the city.

There are some facts. It’s a big city. Difficult. Beautiful. Ugly. It has all these contradictions and layers of a metropolis. And you are very singular. And you try to find your voice within this thing.

In the process of making the film, I kind of deconstructed the city and built it over again. So I engaged in a process of reconstructing these layers, even physically. Of course, I’m talking about the social fabric and all the political, and socio-political layers of the city – everything related to the urban experience. But I’m also talking about the physical elements: Deconstructing or analyzing the architecture of the city, or the sound of the city. Basically, what you do when you make a film is you try to capture all these things, and then build these layers. And you built them through producing the film: Through the editing, and the sound production. So through this process of recreating the city that you love, you also understand those layers. So it’s not only on the social, political, psychological, existential level, but it’s also about this very real, physical thing. Because basically, what you do is you film the city, you break it into fragments, and then you begin to re-build it once again.

I approached the city as a puzzle – I turned it into little pieces, and then I tried to put them back together. And I asked myself – does it work with what I think the city is or does it not? Then I kept making all these kinds of links and relationships until I decided that this is the city that is in my mind. And in that process of deconstructing the city and building it again, I kind of gained an understanding of it. I don’t know if I answered your question.

There are some facts. It’s a big city. Difficult. Beautiful. Ugly. It has all these contradictions and layers of a metropolis. And you are very singular. And you try to find your voice within this thing.

Guernica: Would you compare your relationship to Cairo to a relationship with a friend, or a lover, or a parent?

Tamer El Said: It’s a relationship with a life. Because at the end of the day, Cairo is carrying all these things. It has all these layers. I like to think of my film as a film about friendship. This is how I always thought of it. But this is not all it is. Because I think that the city is also carrying the parent, the lover, and the friend. But what are more important are the memories it carries.

I am very intrigued by memory in the context of urban experience. I think about it all the time. There’s this kind of parallelism: Many individuals living in same place, each with his own experience. Everyone interprets the city differently. So, it’s all about how you find your singularity in this collectiveness.

It’s also about how you deal with the city’s violence. Because it has its own violence, of course. You know, I also think, that Khalid as the main character in the film, and I, both have this need to witness. To document and capture a moment. Because you feel that the world is passing you by, and everything is slipping through your fingers. And you become kind of obsessed. Because at the end of the day, you know that none of this will last. And because of this fear of being abandoned, you want to make sure that you keep things around you, through your art. I think part of being a filmmaker is the desire to make things eternal. There are things that you love, and they’re very meaningful to you, and you’re afraid to lose them. At least that’s what I feel. I don’t want to feel this loneliness inside this structure. So I kind of keep the things that I love by filming them.

Guernica: I sense a strong fear of loss in your words, and also in your film. And I feel like it’s very connected to the idea of change or transformation. Do you think we change? Or is it the city that changes?

Tamer El Said: I think it’s both. I think as much as the city is changing us, our experience inside the city also changes. I think, a city like Cairo — and it’s interesting because yesterday, a friend of mine told me the same this thing about New York — is a city that you can’t control. It’s very bold and very aggressive, and it will constantly resist any attempt at control. But even though you can’t control it, you can find your path within the city. You can come to a better understanding of your relationship with it.

And when you have a better understanding of the relationship, that allows some tenderness to exist and it allows acceptance. And it allows you to see the city’s different faces. I don’t think there is one city. There are many Cairos. It’s not one thing. It looks like one thing but in fact it’s very multi-layered and changes its position all the time. And then you try to position yourself within this experience.

Guernica: Speaking of parallels with other cities, In The Last Days Of The City was filmed in many cities — Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad, and Berlin. Why did you think it was important to represent these other cities in conjunction with the central character – Cairo? Do they all have something in common?

Tamer El Said: Yeah I think they are all cities that have scars. And similar scars, in a way. For Beirut it was the civil war, and the dividing of the city – which is something that is shared among Beirut, Berlin and Baghdad. And Cairo is a city that has a scar that was born after many decades of dictatorship – oppression shaped the people’s lives, and forced people to grow up accompanied by fear. I belong to a generation that, whether we like it or not, was shaped by this fear of death or loosing the people you love, the threat of war, not allowed to be yourself, forced to be silent – as you watch ignorance occupying everything around you. And this is a deep scar. So in a way, I think every city has pain, and sometimes it becomes too difficult to live with.

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Photo courtesy of Tamer El Said

Guernica: You’ve described the film as one that flirts with the border between fiction and reality. What exactly did you mean by that?

Tamer El Said: I hate borders. And my rejection of them was an inspiration for me as I was making the film. You know, the way we are sitting together now, the way you just picked up the glass and took a sip of water. This kind of spontaneity is something that we can’t keep when we put things on a big screen. This mixture of structure and spontaneity is something that I really cherish. So I like to thing of my work as something that is trying to blur this area between fiction and documentary, between cities, between reality and storytelling. For example, when Khalid is walking down the street, and we don’t change or manipulate anything on the street, we don’t ask people to do anything unusual or out of the ordinary. But Khalid is acting. So does this shot qualify as fiction or documentary? I think that this was the main motivation for me throughout this project – to blur this area. I also wanted to raise the question of: What’s truth? And who is telling the narrative? And which narrative is more valid?

Guernica: I think the question of narrative is related to the temporality of the revolution in many ways. Even though this was filmed before the 2011 revolution, being screened now, five years later, almost changes the identity or function of the film. It is now almost like a memorial to the moment before the revolution, and memorials can function as a reminder of what can happen. How did the revolution change your perception of the kind of film you were making?

Tamer El Said: I tried to stay loyal to this moment before the revolution. And when I was always asked if I was making a revolutionary film, I always asked back: What does it mean to make a revolutionary film? To me, a revolutionary film is not a film about a revolution. It has a lot more to do with the art form. It’s a film that is revolting against the old established language of cinema that had been brainwashing the people for decades. It is a film that is trying to find ways to use sound and image differently. I don’t perceive my work to be as political as people suggest it is. I hate political films that have one particular message that they’re trying to convey. I think propaganda is very dangerous, and it’s very easy for anything to slip into it. I also think that propaganda is something that defies the identity of cinema. I hate propaganda in cinema, even if it was promoting the political stance that I myself am allied with. I always say that the responsibility of a film is first and foremost: To be a film. It’s not a manifesto, it’s not an op-ed.

If you ask me about the political thing, I think I was very careful not to slip into making this a propagandist film. I wanted to protect the film from being a film that works for a certain period of time but then stops working. Because politics is ever-changing. And I wanted to make a film that stays loyal to a moment.

Every film has a political side. It’s something that you cannot ignore. Politics is a part of everything, it’s how we speak, how we perceive one another, how we hold this interview: Everything is politics. But it’s a very different thing to just stuff your film with political messages.

For me, I think it’s very important for us to rethink this moment before the revolution, and consider what has changed since then. Has anything really changed? We should raise questions about what that all means. Going back and forth between the moment of the shooting and the moment of the editing, because the shooting was done from a position of foresight, where the crew –like everyone in Cairo – was expecting something to happen. It wasn’t like a prophecy or anything. It wasn’t hard to imagine that the way things were moving – it couldn’t go on like that. And something big was about to happen.

As much as we were looking for this thing to happen, because it was going to bring a new beginning we were also kind of scared. Because we knew that it would take with it everything we loved. So this position was very important. But then the editing happened with a kind of hindsight, after this thing had already happened. And then you deal with these images of something that felt familiar but foreign. I always say: How do these images feel so close but yet, so far? And I think this is also part of the question. I don’t think that the film has to give an answer. I think the film just needs to create a space where these questions can be deliberated.

To me, a revolutionary film is not a film about a revolution. It has a lot more to do with the art form. It’s a film that is revolting against the old established language of cinema that had been brainwashing the people for decades.

Guernica: At the MoMA film screening, I felt that a lot of people came face to face with these questions. People became very emotional, particularly during the Q&A session. I even saw some people crying – there were many Egyptians in the audience. Have you seen a similar reaction in previous screenings?

Tamer El Said: I mean, the film has not been screened that many times. We’ve had 10 screenings all in all. I think people have very different reactions to the film – they each identify with something different, according to where they are in their lives. Some people identify more with the friendship theme, some connect more with Laila, Khalid’s ex, and some with Khalid’s mother. And I think this is interesting, because it allows us to create a kind of discussion, and allows for a discourse to take place. And I think this is pretty much what we wanted to do: We wanted to make a film through which we share the questions we have. The questions I have. This is what I wonder about every day. And by doing so, we may help ourselves and people to move on.

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Photo courtesy of Tamer El Said

Guernica: I feel like Cairo, and Downtown Cairo in particular, figures as a central character in the film. Why did you choose to set most of the film in Downtown?

Tamer El Said: This is part of my practice of self-reflection. I live in Downtown Cairo. These are the streets that I walk everyday. My flat is the flat that Khalid is using inside the film. Since I started wanting to be a filmmaker, I promised myself that I would only speak about the things that I know. I don’t feel comfortable with dealing with people or communities that I am not familiar with.

It wasn’t only about the actual, physical place. For me, this film was dealing with a life that I was part of for many years. It was a very personal film. And I think that to me, films are personal affairs. It doesn’t mean that I am against other people doing things differently, but I’m talking about what I can do. So I don’t feel comfortable going to a new city or a certain class of which I don’t have sufficient knowledge, doing research on that, and then writing a story about it I don’t think I have the ability of presenting other people on screen in that way. It makes me uncomfortable. This doesn’t mean that I only want to talk about myself. I want to talk about what I know.

Guernica: Downtown Cairo was a key player in the revolution. Do you feel that the meaning of Downtown changed from before the revolution – whether for you, personally, or within Cairo in general?

Tamer El Said: Downtown Cairo is at the center of the city, it is a place that has to be shared between different classes and different groups. It’s a place where you see the bigger picture of the city’s social fabric. It’s also a place where you see all the contradictions of having all these layers, classes, and differences at the same time. And this is also where they clash, and where they negotiate. They negotiate their demands, their tastes, the lifestyles they want to have. So it’s a very interesting space. I think that Downtown has maintained that identity before, during, and after the revolution.

To me, these were men who have a feminine side, and they are accepting of their feminine side. It’s not about their sexuality – it has more to do with their perception, how they see things.



Guernica: You shot mannequins in storefronts, undressed, and later covered in newspapers or abayas. We also see stickers on elevator walls with such warnings as: “Don’t look at women!” Is the interplay between religiosity and sexuality, in the context of Cairo, one of the themes that you were trying to raise?

Tamer El Said: Isn’t it part of the very clear questions that you have once you visit Cairo? It’s very strong. You are dealing with a very masculine society that is very judgmental.

I was aware from the very beginning that the main characters in this film are men. But the type of men that we were talking about is not the typical masculine, macho men. I think in a way, I also wanted to challenge this. To me, these were men who have a feminine side, and they are accepting of their feminine side. It’s not about their sexuality – it has more to do with their perception, how they see things. It’s about this softness that the harsh, urban context of Cairo is not allowing to grow.

For me, this is not necessarily a film supporting a feminist movement; it’s just discussing the difficulty of being a woman within this context. It’s something that we live through every day. But I thought it has to stay subtle. That’s why it’s not very loud or spoken directly, but manifests in, for example, the mannequins.

Guernica: Something that is very loud and direct is the scene in which the workers demolish the building. I felt it was a very violent scene, mixed with elements of tenderness, like the photograph which one of the workers takes a brief look at before throwing it among the rubble. What does this scene represent for you?

Tamer El Said: For me, it’s the opposite. I feel the violence is coming from the way the man was tearing up the photograph. It’s not about the act of tearing up the photo. It was about the nonchalance with which he did it. As if he has the right to just destroy the memory of people who had existed there. And that’s what was very shocking. As much as demolishing the building was very violent, for me, this moment of the picture being callously thrown away…For me, a picture represents eternity. Someone, at some moment, decided to capture a moment and make it eternal. And then someone decided to destroy it. And this is very violent.

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Photo courtesy of Tamer El Said

Guernica: I think what I meant was that paper cannot crumble as loudly and palpably as concrete can. At the end of the day it fell very slowly, soundlessly. Which yes, I see your point, is probably even more violent.
So this scene was documentary? They weren’t acting?

Tamer El Said: You know I always feel that I shouldn’t say. I think this is part of the film. The film has to keep people wondering, what is constructed and what is real. Because otherwise…

Tamer El Said is a filmmaker living in Cairo where he was born in 1972. He studied filmmaking and journalism and went on to make many documentaries and short films that received several international and local awards. Tamer founded Zero Production in 2007 to produce independent films. He is also a founder of Cimatheque – Alternative Film Centre in Egypt, a multi purpose space that provides facilities, training and programing for the independent filmmaking community. His first feature length film, In the Last Days of the City, was premiered in the Berlinale 2016 where it received the Caligari Film Prize. The film is now touring international festivals and recently obtained the Best Director Award at Buenos Aires International Film Festival (BAFICI) in Argentina.

Sara Elkamel is an Egyptian journalist and writer, born and raised in Cairo, currently living in New York. Elkamel is Associate International Editor at The Huffington Post. She graduated in May 2015 with a Master of Arts in Journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Before then, Elkamel was reporting on arts and culture in Cairo for local and international publications.

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One comment for Tamer El Said: Moments in Eternal Cities

  1. Comment by ARTH on July 7, 2016 at 5:17 am

    I am very interested in seeing this movie. Is it available on video or streaming on the Internet? Please advise.

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