Egyptian filmmaker Tamer El Said’s debut feature is a stunning love letter to the city of Cairo where he was born in 1972. The personal film is not autobiographical but there are similarities between El Said and his protagonist Khalid (Khalid Abdalla) a filmmaker living in Downtown Cairo dealing with loss while attempting to make a documentary that captures the pulse of his city. Unsure of the direction his film and life is taking during the final two years of Mubarak’s regime, Khalid relies on his colleagues for advice as they discuss the bonds with their cities, Baghdad, Berlin, and Beirut.
The film takes place in 2009, two years before the Egyptian revolution turned Cairo into a war zone as millions of protesters demanded the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Over 250 hours of footage was shot by El Said in a timeline that reflects that of the film’s central character Khalid (Khalid Abdalla) who mirrors the director’s personal journey, although the events in the film are fictional.
Khalid feels the necessity to capture the essence of Cairo, a city on the edge filled with hope, yet he’s not sure which direction to take his documentary. He enlists the help of three friends, also filmmakers in town for a panel discussion on cinema, to give him inspiration. As Bassem (Bassem Fayad) discusses Beirut he points out that the city was better during the war because they loved it more. Tarek (Basim Hajar) is from Baghdad but now resides in Berlin. He’s seen death in both cities and when Hassan (Hayder Helo) argues there’s no difference between the dead in Berlin and Baghdad, Tark passionately points out that those who died in Baghdad didn’t choose to end their lives while the death at the Metro in Berlin was a suicide. It’s evident that all four friends love their homelands as the lively discussion is fueled by their patriotic fervor.
Khalid’s personal life is occupied by a dying mother (Zeinab Mostafa), a girlfriend (Laila Samy) who is moving away, and the need to find a new flat. As he deals with each pressing issue in a relative calm manner, the documentarian keeps shooting his city and conducting interviews while life around him changes at a rapid pace.
There is a poetic aura that drives El Said’s visually stunning debut. The performances are so natural that the film within a film feels like an actual documentary. There is a subtlety in Khalid Abdalla’s performance that captures his emotions without uttering a word, the British-Egyptian actor has appeared in “The Kite Runner,” and opposite Matt Damon in “Green Zone.” Nine years in the making, “In the Last Days of the City” captures a period in Cairo’s history just before the city changed forever. The soul of the booming metropolis becomes the real star of El Said’s immersive feature film.
(3 ½ stars)
Now playing in select cities. The film will open at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston on Aug. 03, 2018.