Interview with director Tamer El Said

"In the Last Days of the City": Between light and dark

″In the Last Days of the City″ is Egyptian director Tamer El Said′s debut film. Although it premiered to great acclaim at the 2016 Berlinale and has gone on to win more than ten awards, it is still hasn't been released in Egypt. Tugrul von Mende spoke to El Said as the film opened in Germany

"In the Last Days of the City" has proved a huge success, yet it still can′t be shown in your home country. How does that make you feel?

Tamer El Said: The film has given me far more than I could ever have imagined. Yet one major problem remains: I need people who know and appreciate the context to be able to watch the film. If I can′t show this film in Cairo, I will always feel that the experience is somehow incomplete. I still find it hard that ten months after submitting the film, we still haven′t heard back from the Egyptian Film Licensing Board. It might not be an official ban, but it′s enough to prevent people from seeing the film.

What inspired you to make this film?

El Said: I was searching for the spirit, the soul of the city. Cairo is very photogenic and I wanted to learn how to film it. I like poetry and poetic cinema. The film is my attempt at finding a balance between the crude and the elegant. The film was a way of visualising and allowing others to share in this process.

Was there a particular director who influenced you?

El Said: I′m a fan of many film makers. I don′t worry about being influenced by others. Mohammad Khan, for instance, is someone whose work I really admire. It was watching his films that made me want make films. When I was seven I saw his debut film ″Darbet Shams″ (Sunstroke) and at the time I had no idea what a film director was. Yet there was something unique about the film. I decided there and then that I was going to be a film maker and follow in his footsteps.

How revolutionary were your production methods?

"In the Last Days of the City" film poster
Initially shot in 2009, this elegiac love-hate poem to Cairo was a long time in the making. Largely fiction with non-fiction elements, ″In the Last Days of the City″ grapples with loss in all its myriad forms – separation, death, politics and decay. While most instant responses to the Egyptian Revolution now seem hopelessly dated, Said’s work, filmed before the uprising, takes full, intelligent advantage of hindsight

El Said: I am always being asked whether I made a film about a revolution. But there is a difference be-tween a revolutionary film and a film that is deals with revolution as a subject. A revolutionary film is one which revolts against the mainstream mode of story-telling. I see it as an attempt to create something using the language of image and sound with the aim of sharing it with others. You have to take risks in cinema. Without taking risks we never move forward. This process of taking risks allows you to understand things about yourself. In this way you may become a better person, or at least understand yourself better.

The main difficulty when making this film was that we had to meet the challenges posed by making such a film without the infrastructure that would have eased its birth. We didn't have a reference. We had to create a reference. Cinema is always difficult. Everybody is working to create a moment. Soul is the hardest thing to create. Then try going it alone, without the support of an existing film industry – and doing it in a country like Egypt with all its political intrigue, where permits are as rare as hens teeth′. I had to write a convincing fake script and present it to all the different civil servants involved, to ensure we would get permits. At times, making a film in the Mubarak era seemed to be a mission impossible, but we persevered and were ultimately successful.

The characters in the film are flawed, they could exist in the real world. How much was improvised?

El Said: Everything was improvised. When you improvise, you need to be really well prepared. All the characters basically played a version of themselves. We had loads of rehearsals. We would stop and discuss a particular aspect and then continue rehearsing. When we moved to the set I asked them to start from scratch. These rehearsals were essential; they created a kind of complicity between the characters. They understood each other. The story of Khalid’s family is my story, but he is not me. He is the mirror that reflects the city. He plays a character that nobody wants to be. No one wants to be him, yet he manages to create enough of a soul that the audience can relate to him.

You included news items from the radio, to what end? You have already said that it is not a political or revolutionary film.

El Said: I wanted to have a layer of state narrative to shadow the context in which the characters exist. The idea was to create a feeling of continuous brainwashing at the hands of the media. It was a way of documenting what was going on in the background and what was happening to the characters.

How did you aim to capture the degree of violence taking place at that time?

El Said: What do you do when you see that the world around you is collapsing and you only have a camera. It is not about the revolution, it is about the moment before. I tried to capture that point when you feel you cannot continue like this and something big is going to happen. People thought the demonstrations and the anti-regime movement started in 2011; it started much earlier. This is something we have a responsibility to document for the sake of history.

The germ of revolution began much earlier – we have to ensure that this is reflected by the facts. Ultimately, of course, I make feature films and I want people to regard this piece as such. The problem occurs is when people confuse what we are doing with the news. They expect the film to explain the news to them. Cinema is not news. Explaining current affairs is not my job, it is the job of journalists and they do it very well.

Interview conducted by Tugrul von Mende

© 2017

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