A Journey Through Doubts, Memories and Streets

Tamer El Said writes about the uniquely organic creative approach he took to making his cinematic ode to Cairo, In the Last Days of the City.

When I was invited to write a piece for Talkhouse, I was told I had around 1200 words and could write about anything I felt the urge to share, related – directly or indirectly – to my film In the Last Days of the City. I asked myself, how can I speak about this experience in 1200 words? How can I share 10 years of my life in just a few pages? This position of sitting in front of my keyboard not knowing how to start writing felt similar to the position I was in when I was about start to work on In the Last Days of the City, looking at Cairo and not knowing how to make a film about it. How could I capture this place in a two-hour film? How could I express its layers and its complexity? How could I deal with the fragility of knowing how I want my film to be but not knowing how to make it?

I’ve lived most of my life in Cairo. It’s the city that made me what I am. I used to walk the downtown streets everyday. For me, Cairo is one of the most photogenic cities in the world. It has this amazing mixture of gentleness and harshness. It can be very tough, but it can also embrace you tenderly. It has many faces and it’s so multi-layered. It’s a city of contradictions, where the line between reality and fiction feels totally blurred. Sometimes things look so unreal that it’s as if you are inside a big movie. The main source of inspiration for my work was – and still is – to try and learn how to film Cairo in a new and cinematic way, how to reflect and create the “Cairo experience” on screen. I wanted to learn how to capture the pulse of the streets, the soul of the people, these mixed feelings that intrigued and exhausted me every time I walked around the city.

But to capture this soul, we need to surrender to it. There is a very fine line between following the film and making the film follow you. We need to be open to receive the gifts that a place will give us. Some people think that making films is about how we control everything, but I think in my case it was the opposite. It was about getting lost so I could reach a place I didn’t otherwise know how to get to. I would stop myself from imagining a scene before I went to the location, because I believed having a specific image in my head would limit my vision. I needed to have my eyes open and see what the city was proposing, and then build on it. This is not an easy process. It felt like chasing the air, but it allowed me and my collaborators to stay loyal to how we wanted our film to be. I kept saying to my crew that we needed to find a complicity between us and the city, to capture the magic when it happened. It was like dancing with the city and allowing it to take the lead.

When we make a fiction film, we are like farmers. We water our seeds. We take care of our plants while they’re growing everyday. We do this with passion, love and patience. The more we give, the more our plants will flourish and be fruitful. But when we make a documentary, we are like fishermen. We cast our net and hope that the sea will fill it for us. We need to trust the sea, otherwise it won’t give us anything. The more we trust it, the more it is generous. My journey of making a film was about trying to learn when I should be a farmer and when I should be a fisherman.

I worked with Rasha Salti for about a year writing In the Last Days of the City. What we created was less a conventional script than a breakdown of scenes. We both were aware that we needed to create a sketch or a blueprint of the film, a guide for us to facilitate the improvisation process that was our main approach. We tried to create something that had a precision to it but, at the same time, stayed open to growth. We wanted the film to happen during the shoot, to keep its soul fresh and alive. This also created another burden: I had to accept producing the film myself, together with Khalid Abdalla, my dear friend, who is also the film’s main actor. We couldn’t find a producer who would accept the risk of supporting an improvised feature by a first-time director.

Every film needs a machine behind it. If you don’t have the machine, then you have to build it for yourself. In our case, we had to build the machine while we were making the film itself. Most of the decade we spent making In the Last Days of the City was invested in setting up the conditions that allowed us to make the film the way we wanted, not in actually making the film itself. I was a filmmaker only for a few days of these 10 years. The rest of them, I was working hard just to make those few days possible. That was the only way to secure the freedom we needed to create the film we wanted. We needed to invent our production model to keep the level of openness that is so essential for the language we wanted to achieve. This openness has a price, but it’s also a gift. It makes you feel exposed and puts you in a fragile position of uncertainty and self-doubt, but this position is so necessary to achieve what you want.

Making this film was also a journey of loneliness. When you make a film – even if you are surrounded by the most amazing people in the world, which I fortunately was – you are alone. By the end of the day, it is just you in front of your work, facing your doubts. The process of making a film is like having a daily appointment with your failure. You face the gap between your imagination and your inability to realize this imagination. You doubt yourself and realize you are not as good as you think; it’s an agony you have to accept. As hard as it is, it’s also beautiful, because it makes you grow and learn. It tells you something about who you are and who you want to be. It allows you to embrace your limitations and keeps your heart open to life.

In one scene of the film, Hassan, the Iraqi filmmaker who refuses to leave Baghdad, asks Haj Mahdi, the old Baghdadi calligrapher, “Where has poetry gone in a city that has only news images of war, tanks, bombed cars and suicide bombers?” The old man answers him, “Poetry is everywhere, waiting to be written.” Now, when I look back, I realize that the fragility of knowing how I wanted my film to be and not knowing how to make it was perhaps the greatest gift to begin with, that this journey of loneliness through doubts, memories and streets was the most beautiful and painful poem of my life.

Tamer El Said is a filmmaker living between Berlin and 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 co-founder of Cimatheque – Alternative Film Centre in Cairo, a multipurpose space that provides facilities, training and programing for the independent filmmaking community. In the Last Days of the City, his first feature film, plays in select theaters from April 27 through Big World Pictures.