'In the Last Days of the City' ('Akher ayam el Medina'): Berlin Review

In the Last Days of the City still 1 -Khalid Abdalla - H 2016
Courtesy of Zero Production
A dense mood piece captures a key moment in Egypt.

A fictional portrait of Cairo before the revolution.

It’s hard to watch In the Last Days of the City (Akher ayam el Medina), Tamer El Said’s searingly poignant farewell to the Cairo where he grew up, without thinking of Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution. Though the contests are radically different, the underlying sentiment is the same: "He who has not lived before the revolution doesn’t know what the sweetness of living is." Said’s hymn to Cairo in 2009 — two years before the Egyptian Revolution brought millions of protestors to the streets and ousted president Hosni Mubarak — shows the joys and anguish of the preceding years, seething with police oppression, media censorship and state propaganda, but made meaningful by the common experiences of friends and the intensity of the times. Beautifully lensed and complexly edited in a dense patchwork of people, feelings and events, it is bound to be followed by more festival dates after its bow in the Berlin Forum.

Though the story is fictional, the imagery is grounded in a powerful documentary reality.

Khalid Abdalla (United 93, The Kite Runner) plays Khalid, an independent filmmaker who is in a creative tailspin. Trying to finish the film he is making (presumably it is the one we are seeing, about Cairo), he circles around the uncut scenes with his frustrated editor without being able to make definite decisions. Similarly, he has a deadline to leave his apartment, but he can’t decide on a new one, no matter how many he is shown by a harried real estate agent (Mohamed Gaber). To add to his misery, his girlfriend Laila (Laila Samy) has left him — in fact, she’s about to leave the country — and his mother (Zeinab Mostafa) is in the hospital.

There’s a tremendous amount of material in this intricate city mosaic, written by Said and Rasha Salti, not all of it well-developed or essential to the story. But like the montage of expressive faces on the noisy, traffic-choked, chaotic streets of downtown, it all adds up to an impression of a directionless, confused country. Some protestors demand an end to Mubarak’s rule; others rally for Islamist leadership. A man beats his wife in a courtyard while Khalid just films it helplessly; the police beat a protestor bloody, while again he looks on. Workmen demolish a big apartment building and all the personal memories it contains. Everything pushes him to participate in the great, violent energy swirling around him.

Abdalla plays Khalid as a gentle, ineffectual, beleaguered intellectual, who only gets his batteries recharged when his three close filmmaker friends come to town for a panel. Bassem (Bassem Fayad) lives in Beirut, Hassan (Hayder Helo) in Baghdad and Tarek (Basim Hajar) has fled Iraq to make a new home in Germany on a refugee permit. In a moving scene on a bridge at night, they talk about how deeply war has affected them, destroying the sweetness of living but making their attachment to their motherlands still greater. 

Production companies: Zero Production in association with Sunnyland Films, Mengamuk Films, Autonomous

Cast: Khalid Abdalla, Laila Samy, Hayder Helo, Zeinab Mostafa, Mohamed Gaber, Hanan Yousef, Isam Kamal, Maryam Saleh, Bassem Fayad, Basim Hajar,  

Director: Tamer El Said

Screenwriters: Tamer El Said, Rasha Salti

Producers: Tamer El Said, Khalid Abdalla

Co-producers: Hana Al Bayaty, Michel Balague, Marcin Malaszczak, Cat Villiers

Director of photography: Bassem Fayad

Production designer: Salah Marei

Costume designer: Zeina Kiwan

Editors: Mohamed A. Gawad, Vartan Avakian, Barbara Bossuet

Music: Amelie Legrand, Victor Moise

World sales: Still Moving  

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)

119 minutes