One of the most elementary measures of a movie's success is whether it can deliver images or experiences we've never seen or had before. Going by that rubric, Egyptian filmmaker Tamer El Said's debut — which opens at the Detroit Institute of Arts and Ann Arbor's State Theatre on Friday following a Cinema Lamont screening earlier this year, and some 10 years in production — will have plenty to offer most of us.
Functioning better as a stream of images than a character-driven narrative, El Said's two-hour time capsule captures the streets and alleyways of Cairo with an intimately familiar hand, following a documentary filmmaker, Khalid (played by Khalid Abdalla of The Square, and The Kite Runner) in the years before the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
Khalid, an extremely quiet lead, functions pretty transparently as an authorial stand-in. Exuding a muted, passive yet notable warmth, Abdalla's performance serves largely to let the film meditate on itself. Wandering with his camera throughout the city, he ruminates on the best means and purpose of documenting a city, how to do so at a particular moment in time, and — mostly by implication, via cuts and pauses in dialogue — whether he should even bother. El Said's aim in using such a figure seems pointed toward aesthetic directness, a laissez-faire approach that trusts the movie will find a shape naturally — though it's also allowed to rest upon the strength of its sequential editing and a few key structuring motifs.
If there's a core truth — as well as a potential weakness — illumined by this element of authorial transparency, then it lies in the film's lack of overt drama. Daily tasks before, during, and after a revolution proceed — somewhat shockingly — as normal. Just as now in America (though to a lesser degree), it's the scenery, tone, and mood that change most palpably — much more than the actual rhythms and routines of day-to-day life, which feature (for many of us, anyway) a series of hardships that escalate gently over time. Over Last Days' course, Khalid hunts for an apartment, conducts interviews for a larger film project, cares for his ailing mother, and banters with artistic colleagues over their differing motives, successes, and doubts. All the while, the radio broadcasts Hosni Mubarak's political propaganda, snippets of actual news, and word of a soccer league's progress. El Said's camera, which seems almost to blink or wince with its odd darts, abundant jump-cuts, and drifts in focus, seems to be striving for a documentary-like version of transparency — an aim strongly hinted at via both the passive flow of time onscreen and Khalid's dialogue with artistic friends and colleagues. "[There's] no hiding behind a role," one friend enthuses of her own method. "It's just you... facing the audience." Another advises Khalid to "start from the middle," from within the thick of things — less structurally than emotionally, politically, and in terms of texture — at least if Last Days' style and shape are any indication. At one point Khalid even says, "I don't talk, I watch," evincing a sense of trust (by both the character and El Said) that observing and recording are their own justifications — and that by doing so transparently, one can cut out a great many of the barriers that typically divide artist and viewer.
And justify itself it does — at least aesthetically and politically. Last Days serves as a welcome opportunity to bear witness to the pace and tenor of shifts amid a political crisis, and to take in a set of local textures recorded by someone intimately familiar as they change. The fakery and sanctimony of Hollywood historical dramas is blessedly absent, and El Said's rhythmic, abstracted editing seems indebted to the more essayistic work of Chris Marker or Jean-Luc Godard, as does his use of metacommentary. It's not clear from watching which elements are staged and which are recorded in real life as they happened, and the ambiguity — particularly in the gold-tinted exterior scenes — often proves richly tense and rewarding.
But if one takes the film's stated ethos of "no hiding behind a role" to heart, then it poses the question: Why not shoot this as an essay film? It's hard to argue with such a core decision behind a project, to ask what-ifs when watching a movie that would drastically reconfigure its own shape and structure. But there's a sense throughout that Last Days is a hybrid mood piece, an aesthetic question, and a historical document at its core — and, as such, it feels relatively anemic as a work of character-driven fiction. Though there's value introduced via the film's more fictionalized narrative elements — temporal devices, a sense (via Khalid's ailing parents) of movement and change across generations, and surely an enhanced freedom in editing — it's also easy to wonder at how the film seems to orbit around central questions and doubts. Likewise, its tentative, rather shy approach to central relationships calls attention to itself. Laila, the film's central romantic interest, has a bit of a background but remains basically a cipher — our intimacy with her is strictly visual. Similarly, most of the other characters feel like mouthpieces for El Said's own political questions.
A movie that takes on this much politically, aesthetically, and historically can't be expected to answer all of its own questions, or even most of them. But the ones it might confront or at least gain some ground on are likely the most emotional, or personal: the fuel behind the fire. If we're to take Last Days as a document on this front, too — as a diary as well as a personalized, somewhat fictionalized history — then it's a testament that the most intimate questions, pressing and worthwhile as they are, prove even for the boldest artists the most difficult to voice.
In the Last Days of the City screens 7 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, and 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. on Sunday at the Detroit Film Theater, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900; dia.org; and 4 p.m. on Saturday at the State Theatre, 233 S. State St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8397; statetheatrea2.org. El Said will appear for a Q&A following screenings at both theaters on Saturday (4 p.m. at the State Theatre, 7 p.m. at the DFT). Tickets are $9.50 DIA, $10 State Theatre.
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