Cinetracts conversation: Tamer El Said on the challenges of filming in 2020

David Filipi, Director, Film/Video

Oct 08, 2020

Filmmaker Tamer El Said stands against a brick wall with the Wexner Center for the Arts logo in brushed metal lettering above him

For his contribution to Cinetracts ’20, which debuts on this website October 8 at 7 PM, Tamer El Said takes a ride through Cairo with a cameraperson, capturing from the car window scenes of ruined buildings and some sounds from the street, before the frame is taken over by darkness and a rhythmic cacophony of construction noises and marching troops. 

As part of Cinetracts '20, El Said will graciously share access to his film In the Last Days of the City October 9–13. We'll share a link tomorrow; you'll find it at the bottom of this page.

What follows was not planned as an interview with El Said, who splits his time between Cairo and Berlin. It was a simple check-in about the state of his project which had been disrupted by the onset of the COVID pandemic, but it is indicative of the struggles faced by many artists during the pandemic. It was recorded on April 29, 2020. El Said begins the conversation.


My initial idea was to do the film in Cairo. I think you are aware that it is very challenging for me to film there right now for many reasons, but this is something I would like to do. The urgency in Cairo is greater, and I thought showing Cairo in a film like this makes more sense than making it in Berlin. My idea was to make my film in 16mm. I had different ideas that I wanted to experiment with. My style of filmmaking is open, and I rely on editing. It’s the actual writing of the film for me. I prepared everything, and I was supposed to go to Cairo on March 27. I was very lucky because I was supposed to teach a master class in London, and my hosts agreed to pay for my ticket from Berlin to London, and then to Cairo and I was going to stay there for all of April to shoot my film. I got my film stock and sent it ahead to Cairo. I managed to secure a camera and someone to film with me because I like to work with other and not film by myself. 

I planned to try different things. I wanted to blend different shots from my window with different media excerpts, a press conference with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and Trump, and we hear lots of things from Trump, but mixed with local news about the difficulty of filming in the streets of Cairo.  It probably doesn’t make sense to you. I’m not very good at explaining my ideas.

I’m not worried about that at all. 

I feel like it’s a strong idea and I’m relying on the medium itself, mixing the sound and everything, to come up with something interesting and at the same time remain open to trying different things. 

And my plan was to come back to Berlin in May and I dedicated the month to this and to finish all of the post-production so the film would be ready by the beginning of June, giving myself a buffer of a month in case anything is postponed.

Of course, the past few weeks has turned everything upside down. The flights are cancelled. Airports are closed. Germany just announced that the earliest they will be open for international flights will be mid-June. On a personal level, all the work I had planned through the end of the year has been cancelled. And I live between two cities and I have to figure out a way to manage this difficult situation.

In the middle of all of this, I’ve been thinking of the coronavirus as a new direction that I need to deal with. I witnessed the Egyptian Revolution, and I saw that all of the films that were made during the revolution very quickly didn’t make any sense. The escalation of the situation on the ground was much faster than the ability of a film to capture the mood. And I believe we are witnessing a similarly unstable moment, when the whole world is at a turning point. My concern is that we are at a stage where what we capture on the ground will be mature enough to represent what we are really going through. We can capture many things now, but to finish the production… It’s a moment of collecting material, not finishing something.

But at the same time I feel that there is something very intriguing about what is going on right now that is bigger than the coronavirus. The coronavirus is just representing a global crisis that we have been witnessing for 10 years and more and showing us that we can’t continue this way, and that something drastic has to happen quickly. It feels like the planet is so tired of what we are doing and it is trying to give us many signs for us to understand that it’s not going to work this way.  You know, my little son keeps saying that he wants to be an astronaut and that he wants to go to the moon. I hear this a lot from this generation, from his friends. I think there is this feeling that they don’t want to continue on this planet anymore. Really. They want to turn the page of this planet.

Turning back to the film, maybe the virus can work because we have all of these things going on but we need to fit them into two minutes. At the moment, I don’t have a big inspiration that is shaking me from inside to film something in Berlin. So, this is my dilemma and why I wanted to speak with you about my film. Maybe it will help generate new ideas. My wish is to do the film in Cairo because I feel the urgency there more. I wanted to experiment with 16mm, which is not tied to doing it in Cairo,, but I couldn’t afford to do that in Berlin. The stock is already in Cairo and I can’t afford to bring it back to Berlin and I have someone who I can shoot with in Cairo and free use of a camera. I can do the processing in the Cinematheque there and can afford it within my budget, but I don’t have the funds to pay a professional to do all of this. To change the project and to shoot it in Berlin, I would have to change the medium and I’m not very interested in that.  Ultimately, I’m wondering about the timeline to finish this and if there is a buffer so I can still make the film in Cairo. 

"It feels like the planet is so tired of what we are doing and it is trying to give us many signs for us to understand that it’s not going to work this way. You know, my little son keeps saying that he wants to be an astronaut and that he wants to go to the moon. I hear this a lot from this generation, from his friends. I think there is this feeling that they don’t want to continue on this planet anymore. Really. They want to turn the page of this planet."

That’s all very helpful to hear. There are already two filmmakers who have asked for extensions past the original June 30 deadline so we know that we’re going to have to be flexible with everyone. Right now, we don’t even know if our cinema will be open in the fall, so we’re starting to consider what it would mean to present the whole project online. But, of course, we’d need everyone’s film completed early enough to make that possible, to be able to edit the program together, create titles, balance the sound levels, and all of that.

We want you to make a film that you feel inside and that you feel strongly about. I don’t know if this will help, but the project was inspired by the 1968 French Cinétracts. Those films were made with an urgency where, with each individual film, they would certainly not have had the time to think through everything. They were very immediate. The filmmakers wanted to film what was happening and to get it in front of audiences. That’s what inspired our project, but it doesn’t mean that’s what this has to be.

We were thinking that, in the US, this is likely going to be the most tumultuous, contested, ugly election year we’ve ever had. But then we thought everyone will be thinking about that, and that it would be more interesting to broaden the scope of the project to get perspectives from all over the world. When we first started to shape the idea for the project, the “political” was very much at the forefront of our minds, but now, with COVID, everything obviously changed and we’re hoping that will inform some of the films that are going to be made. I think you’re right that a film made right now is not going to tell the whole story, that we’re very much in the middle of the story, but I still think it will be exciting and valuable to have something made under these conditions as a document of what is going on now that we can look back to. 

Of course, we want you to make the film that you want to make and we can be flexible to the point that we have the film in time to present the program.

This is good to hear. Setting my film aside for a moment. During my [2018] tour in the US with my film [2016’s In the Last Days of the City], I met many great people and had a number of wonderful experiences. But my experiences with you and at Indiana University were very inspiring to me. I felt like I belonged and that what I am doing is very much a part of what you are doing. It was a deeper feeling than just showing my film and being celebrated. We had never met before and we live thousands of miles away from each other, but I felt like we were closer to each other than I am with my neighbor in the next door flat. And for me, this is what life is about. I’m very aware of the political aspect of this project that you articulated very well, but at the same I feel like there is a possibility with this project that is not going to happen a lot. This project has great potential. 2020 and the virus is giving us a chance; it’s not the other way around. It’s opening a horizon. The virus is a turning point, and 2020, whether we like it or not is already going to be a turning point in history. There will be a “before 2020” and “after 2020” and the election you will have is a part of it.

In the middle of all of these things, I feel that the strongest political message that we can convey is that art, not politics, is the most important thing. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the 1968 French films, but if that was accepted in 1968, things are very different today. In 2020, this same language won’t work, in my opinion.

I agree.

I feel like some of the 20 films must manage to shake people from the inside and to bring questions that filmmakers have to the screen. For me, my film is a question, not an answer. It’s a question about where we are going, whether with Trump or with someone else. It’s a question about how we are ruled and that is what needs to change, otherwise we are just digging our grave.

There’s a really good article that just came out. It’s kind of about something else, but the author used a phrase for what we’re experiencing: “The Great Pause.” Everything is paused right now. Going back to what you were saying about your son, this is just one crisis and it’s affecting the whole world, but there were other crises happening before this started and they’re still going on now, and they are going to be going on five years after COVID is taken care of.

When dealing with 20 filmmakers, we don’t know what we’re going to get from everybody. We’re just putting our faith in people. We’re hoping that when we see all 20 films together, that they add up to what you’re speaking to. Some might be very explicitly political and about something very specific and others could be more poetic but political in the way the idea is expressed. It becomes a collage of how 20 different people around the world want to express themselves within the guidelines of the project.

Exactly. I think we agree and what you said is useful. I’m already very advanced in the process. I wanted to shoot in April for weather reasons, so I’ve been doing the necessary research since January. Even as things change, I still have a lot of sound material that I want to use—sound bites, media excerpts—inside of the film and this is already done. And I was giving myself a very luxurious timeline, and in the end I can finish the editing fairly quickly.

I just had a similar experience just last week. A group of 30 filmmakers in Germany were invited —including some big names like Wim Wenders—to make films about the coronavirus and they asked me to make one. I did it in two days and it was very well-received, so I can work under more challenging circumstances.

I feel like I’m connecting to your project a bit differently. I feel like it’s a film that will stay on my CV, something that I will show on its own in different places. Building on what we just discussed, I will give myself the next two or three weeks to come to a decision now that I have a better sense of the timeline and I’ll communicate the idea with you whether I shoot in Cairo or Berlin.

I’m glad we had this conversation.

Me too. How are you doing? How is life in Berlin?

I feel like Germany handled this crisis maybe better than any other country. People still go out for walks in the park and things like that. The city has a history of being divided and controlled, so I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. It’s more difficult for someone like me who is not already a part of the system to sustain himself. It was already difficult living between two cities but I was very optimistic about 2020. I had a lot of bookings for my films and a lot of workshops and visits and everything was cancelled over the course of three days. But I can spend more time with my son and we are bonding even more, which is the greatest thing in the world.

Tamer El Said at the Wexner Center on September 28, 2018, to introduce his film In the Last Days of the City; photo: David Filipi

Back to blog home

Like this? Give these a try.