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(Tamir El Said’s In the Last Days of the City is in limited release now and quite possibly coming to a theater near you. Check the link for dates…)

A gorgeous work of socio-political cinema that is also a moving tale of love and friendship, In the Last Days of the City marks the debut of director Tamer El Said, and what a glorious first feature it is. As much a movie about the process of filmmaking, itself, the film offers layer upon layer of meaning and manipulation upon manipulation of time, resurrecting the dead and reliving the past even as it foretells the future; always waiting in the dramatic wings is the coming apocalypse of the once-hopeful Arab Spring. This is the way cinema should be made, using the fundamental building blocks of the medium to explore the mysteries of the human condition.

We are in Cairo, Egypt, in 2009, during the last days of the Mubarak regime, as Khalid (Khalid Abdalla, The Kite Runner) struggles with a personal documentary about his family. Though his father is dead, he dutifully travels to his ailing mother’s hospital room, sometimes to ask her on-camera questions, sometimes just to be with her. When three fellow-filmmaker friends – two from Baghdad and one from Beirut – arrive in town for the screening of one of their own movies, the four men spend a night traveling through Cairo, reminiscing about their respective homelands, and the plight of Arabs in the modern world. Which city is in its last days, we wonder, or is it all of them?

Cutting back and forth between past and present, El Said follows Khalid, just broken up with a longtime girlfriend, as he apartment hunts, noticing signs of a rising Islamic nationalism in the heretofore secular Egypt. There are increasing protests in the streets, put down ever-more brutally by government forces. And still Khalid and his friends film on, able only to document the mounting chaos, rather than engage with it. One of the starkest examples of this comes when Khalid grabs his camera to shoot, from his living room, the scene of a man beating his wife on a rooftop below. What else can he do but press record?

Indeed, the plight of the intellectual and/or artist in a world dominated by those who seek simple answers to complex questions is a running theme. Who cares what smart people think if they cannot solve problems? Indeed, it seems as if the raison d’être of Khalid’s documentary may soon be subsumed in the hellfire of fundamentalist forces. When, at the end, one of the dead, present now only on camera, exhorts Khalid to “re-write the story and start in the middle,” it seems like good advice in a world run amok. Or, perhaps, given the eponymous nature of actor and role – both Khalid – perhaps this entire movie is the very documentary that the (ostensibly) fictional Khalid has completed. Whatever it is, I call it brilliant docufiction, a new hybrid form of movie magic.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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