Toward the end of Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City, the film’s protagonist, Khalid (Khalid Abdalla), glances out the window of his high-rise Cairo apartment and eyes a man in a neighboring shantytown who’s roughing up a woman who appears to be his wife. Khalid, an independent filmmaker, grabs his camera, zooms in, and begins shooting; the subject immediately notices and begins yelling up to him (and thus, the audience), threatening to kick Khalid’s ass. The vertiginous divide between these two men is as much economic as it is physical, making for one of many meta moments wherein the film appears to be flaunting and bemoaning its own vantage point.
Mediated by a camera, Khalid’s detachment is akin to a privileged form of paralysis. Wherever he goes, he finds material for a long-fluctuating autobiographical documentary project, including interviews with his dying mother and telltale snatches of an ex-girlfriend (Laila Samy). Shot over a long period beginning in 2009, the film returns to certain diegetic clips time and again while painting Khalid’s endeavor as an incomplete flux, with ample scenes of him peering into the Final Cut Pro abyss on his laptop.
Of all the blanket terms dropped to typify secular Muslims after 9/11, one of the most widespread—and perhaps therefore most pernicious—is “cosmopolitan.” By diagramming a vastly complicated metropolis like Cairo from an unabashedly first-person perspective, In the Last Days of the City interrogates middle-class privilege in a time of crisis as a series of either-ors: leaving for Europe or staying in Cairo, hiding at home or protesting in the streets, filming blindly or seeking retrenchment in broad certainty.
Cairo’s civil unrest steadily creeps into the film’s field of vision, wracking Khalid’s nerves in the process, but El Said wisely avoids baiting his audience with an interminable countdown to what would become the so-called Arab Spring in January of 2011. Scattershot protesters are seen accusing then-President Hosni Mubarak of selling the country’s gas to Israel, but taxi-radio commentariat idly note Egypt’s continued dominance of the Africa Cup—maybe a sly metaphor for Mubarak’s unchallenged three decades in power.
Both fatalistic and romantic, Khalid obsesses over his failed romance with Laila while wondering whether he even belongs here anymore, taking the city’s temperature—and a long, fruitless apartment hunt—as something akin to a divine message. If this blank-slate mentality makes him less intriguing than the times surrounding him, the screenplay seems aware of that: Khalid’s check-ins with some filmmaker friends from Beirut and Baghdad serve to correct his listless perspective, while cannily foreshadowing that even a city this storied could—and, in fact, did—become something of a war zone. With the filmmakers swapping drunken platitudes against the kind of background score that festival critics live to deem “soulful,” these are also, unfortunately, the moments when El Said’s film feels most generic.
The real-life Khalid Abdalla put his acting career on hold to participate in the Tahrir Square uprising that saw Mubarak’s ouster, only to be outflanked by Egypt’s U.S.-backed military in a 2013 coup d’etat that saw mass retribution against Muslim Brotherhood members and, eventually, stabilized the country’s lopsided, export-heavy economy. El Said’s film carries the weight of unmistakable historical hindsight. That said, the moment-to-moment viewing experience skews closer to free association, like an Egyptian remake of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool. (This film, too, was workshopped by both cast and crew off a fast-evolving script treatment.) In an indecisive edit session, Khalid’s editor takes him to task for collecting loose fragments with no connective tissue, and the same charge will—and probably should—be levied against In the Last Days of the City itself. But the din that erupts from the logjam—creative, psychic, historical, national—is nothing if not honest.