As a filmmaker with an Egyptian passport, Tamer El Said is acutely aware of how borders separate and classify people every time he crosses from one country to another.
He wanted to make sure that his first movie contained no borders.
“I hate borders,” he said in a phone interview from Berlin. “They always stop me. It’s a place where you are reminded of how different we are and we are not equal in this world. I want my work to erase borders, between different cities, between what is real and what is not real.”
El Said’s acclaimed first film, “In the Last Days of the City,” blurs the lines between fiction and reality. The film follows an Egyptian filmmaker much like El Said in Cairo in the late 2000s, documenting his city on the eve of the Islamic revolution.
Calling the film “personal, but not autobiographical,” El Said cast an actor (Khalid Abdalla of “The Kite Runner”) as the filmmaker Khalid, but cast real people in his life, including his late mother, playing versions of themselves. The film is a hybrid of fiction and documentary, as we follow an actor playing a filmmaker documenting real events on the streets of Cairo.
El Said is bringing “In the Last Days of the City” to Madison for a free screening at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, and will take part in a post-show Q&A. El Said has shown the film to audiences all over the world, and is happy that it sparks so many different reactions.
“I’m not interested in making things that are unifying the audience,” he said. “For me, filmmaking is a very personal process, and I wish every audience member identifies it from a personal approach. I project the film to the audience, but I hope every audience member is projecting his or her life onto the film.”
El Said filmed in Cairo from 2008 to 2010, up until about six weeks before the Egyptian revolution that led to the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. While he filmed some footage of the protests in the streets during the revolution, he ultimately decided not to include that in the finished film.
Instead, we see hints in the film of the revolution to come. It's in the growing gulf between state-sponsored news reports and what the average Egyptian really thinks, in an increased police presence, and a growing fundamentalist movement taking hold in the city.
“It’s not a film about revolution,” El Said said. “It’s a film about where the revolution comes from. It’s not about the change, it’s about the moment before the change. And that moment is very important to understand. The only way to see the future is to understand the past.”
One of the toughest parts of the filmmaking process was finding the actor who plays Khalid. A character who is caught between his past and his present, and unsure (much like his country) about the future, Khalid expresses little emotion throughout the film. Instead, the viewer ends up looking at Cairo through his eyes.
“Khalid is the trigger that lets us see the city,” El Said said. “This way of doing the minimum and being in control all the time, it needed a very committed and disciplined actor. Any little exaggeration can really ruin the whole thing.”
While “In the Last Days of the City” has been praised by critics around the world for its visual poetry and its insights into everyday life in Cairo, it pains El Said that the one place he’s been unable to screen it is in Cairo. He applied for a permit to show the film, but after 18 months, has not gotten an answer from the government.
“It’s the biggest scar I have in my life as a filmmaker. My only dream is to show the film in Cairo and to feel how people think about it. This is something I need as a filmmaker to understand what I did," he said. "I need to get the feedback from the people who live in the same city.”