The irony seems to me inescapable: I've just moved house after a very long time (a process all of us go through but that I truly do not wish on anyone) and I restart my regular chronicling here with a film that begins with... moving house.
Tamer el Said's In the Last Days of the City isn't really so much about moving house, though, as it is about moving on, a peculiar thing to say about a film that its director didn't really move on from for a long time. Set in 2009 but shot over two years (wrapped before the 2011 events in Cairo's Tahrir Square), and taking another four years to reach its first screening, In the Last Days of the City has all the hallmarks of a personal essay film yet is openly fictional. A very modern beast that applies the grammar of modern cinéma du réel, layering reality and fiction, documentary and narrative, into a tale that is all about the now yet keeps its eyes on what was before.
This wasn't the first film I saw this year on my hometown film festival, the ever wonderful IndieLisboa, which I've been following professionally and personally since its first edition in 2004 and that I think has grown in stature over the years. Some of this year's films I've seen before, in other festivals; some I screened online or in press screenings due to interview or story deadlines. The official IndieLisboa opener was Whit Stillman's delightful Love and Friendship, adapting an early Jane Austen novella and proving the director's deftly arch wit fits the writer's comedies of manners like a glove; it's Mr Stillman's first official commercial release in Portugal ever, so I'll get back to it at a later date. The Portuguese feature contingent in competition has also been screened already, and I'll also be catching up with it in further posts on the festival as they come up.
But In the Last Days of the City was the first coup de coeur, as the French say. I'd missed it at the Berlinale Forum, where it premiered earlier this year, and its selection for Indie's official feature competition allowed me to catch up with it. Beautifully shot by Bassem Fayad as a constant dialogue between real life and the screens mediating it (computer monitors, shop windows, TV screens), the film follows a couple of months in the life of Cairo filmmaker Khalid. The passive, self-doubting Khalid is overwhelmed by life: his struggle to find a new and suitable flat, his mother's illness, his romantic break-up with a partner who's leaving the city to live abroad, his inability to find the thread to the film he's shooting and editing. And yet...
And yet, life goes on. Khalid may be trying to hold on to the Cairo he's always loved and that he feels is slipping away from him, as anti-government demonstrations, soccer fanaticism, devout Islamism seem to burst the bubble of his storybook Cairo. But life goes on nevertheless, and while In the Last Days of the City may be a requiem for what was, there's no reactionary nostalgia involved, only an impressionistic record of the fleeting moments in time that stick with us, a memento to be treasured. At one point one of the characters says "Cairo is like a siren", and the film envelops the viewer with its sensuous, hypnotic call, but Mr El Said never lets us forget it's just that: a siren's call.
A siren of another type was also visible in the festival's Silvestre sidebar: Evita, the myth most of us remember from Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, but also the phenomenon that swept Argentinian politics and society in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Eva Doesn't Sleep, Argentinian director Pablo Agüero's fourth feature, uses the strange true story of the travails her corpse suffered from her death at 33 in 1952 onwards to create a slanted, oblique take on history and myth-making.
Shot by Iván Gierasinchuk in desaturated tones in tiny, claustrophobic interiors and intercutting actual newsreels of the three time periods it's set in, Eva Doesn't Sleep is an audaciously off-kilter historical fantasia, divided in three acts set over 25 years. It doesn't always hit its marks; at its best, its psycho-geographical take on the way this woman imprinted herself on such a patriarchal culture, and how successive political regimes both use and abuse myths to their own means, makes inventive use of its theatrical, stylized settings. (I could very well see it as a theatrical production.)
But the film hits a stumbling block with the presence of Denis Lavant in its central section, as a French "military consultant" responsible for removing and disposing of Evita's embalmed corpse. Unlike Gael García Bernal, who dims his star power in a small role and fits perfectly into the ensemble, Mr Lavant's presence stands literally out of the film and breaks the spell - you're not watching a character, you're watching Denis Lavant, and for me that was a deal-breaker. It didn't make Eva Doesn't Sleep any less interesting, but it blocked it from being more than a striking, flawed experiment.
(to be continued)
AKHER AYAM AL MEDINA
EG, DE, GB, 2016, 119 minutes
CAST Khalid Abdalla, Maryam Saleh, Hanan Yousef, Laila Samy, Bassem Fayad, Basim Hajar, Hayder Helo, Mohamed Gaber, Islam Kamal, Aly Sobhy, Fadila Tawfik, Etimad Ali Hassan. Zeinab Mostafa; DIR Tamer el Said; SCR Mr. El Said and Rasha Salti; DP Mr. Fayad; MUS Amélie Legrand and Victor Moïse; PROD DES Salah Marei; COS DES Zeina Kiwan; ED Mohamed A. Gawad, Vartan Avakian and Barbara Bossuet; PROD Mr. El Said and Mr. Abdalla; Zero Production in co-production with Sunnyland Film, Mengamuk Films and Autonomous
EVA NO DUERME
AR, FR, ES, 2015, 85 minutes
CAST Gael García Bernal, Denis Lavant, Daniel Fanego, Imanol Arias, Miguel Ángel Solá; DIR Pablo Agüero; SCR Mr. Agüero with the collaboration of Santiago Amigorena and Marcelo Larraquy; DP Iván Gierasinchuk; ART DIR Mariela Rípodas; COS DES Valentina Bari; ED Stéphane Elmadjian; MUS Valentin Portron; PROD Jacques Bidou, Marianne Dumoulin and Vanessa Ragone; JBA Production and Haddock Films in co-production with Tornasol Films and Tita B Productions, in association with Pyramide