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‘The Last Interview’ of Edward Said
By Brigitte Caland
The Last Interview
Directed by Mike Dibb, Interviewed by Charles Glass
First Run/Icarus Films, 2004, 114.48 minutes
When I first met Edward Said, I had just finished translating his memoirs "Out of Place" into French. The translation took seven months, during which he was always available. We used to communicate through the internet, sending e-mails back and forth, and he would kindly answer my questions and give me references to read or to listen to. At the end of spring 2002 I visited New York, and although he was very sick and under heavy chemotherapy treatment, we had lunch in a restaurant near Columbia University. He came in, walking with his cane, sat down, and started talking as if we had known each other for a long time.
He ordered a steak and French fries but could hardly eat anything. The food stayed on his plate; he nibbled on it while talking. At the beginning of the meal he said, "I am too tired to walk, but I need to go to the hardware store across the street and get some small things for the house." He was waiting for his daughter to come and accompany him for a while during the afternoon. Tired from the treatment, he was concerned about being alone.
So we walked to the light to cross the street. He stood straight but leaned on his cane whenever we stopped. He finished his errand and said, "Let's go to my office." Nothing could stop him from going, working, doing what needed to be done. He decided to cross the campus to his office, located a few buildings away. Students came towards him. He stopped, pleasantly, and took time for each one of them, suggesting that, if needed, they could e-mail him during summer, and he would answer and stay in touch. I could feel he was exhausted but not willing to give up or to show how much he was affected by this long struggle that had lasted over 10 years. I was extremely impressed by his willpower, his courage and determination to carry on each one of his lives: he was writing for newspapers, attending his students' Ph.D.s, finishing a book on the "Last Period," and making corrections on the last draft of "Parallel and Paradox"– dialogues with Daniel Barenboim, his friend.
Watching "The Last Interview," listening to Edward Said talk about the major topics and interests of his life, brings back memories of his tenacious character and the fact that he never gave up. Comfortably sitting on a couch, wearing an orange sweater to cheer his face, he admits he always thought with determination and will power, if he put himself to it, he could get over it and do anything. For some time, he thought he had mastered his illness intellectually, but eventually realized he could not get rid of it and was discouraged. The treatment was exhausting, but the attitude he inherited from his father, the "the keep going and not look backwards," his total refusal to relax or to rest, and the physical revulsion these words gave him, were the motor that allowed him to continue toward the goals he had set for himself.
Throughout this documentary, with simple but accurate words, he talks in front of a still camera, in natural light, about his life, thoughts, and political positions, answering the questions of Charles Glass, a friend. He goes over the process of writing "Orientalism," "Culture and Imperialism," and "Out of Place," his motivations, how they fit in time, and the reactions they provoked.
When the Palestinian question is brought up, his words are incisive and sharp, as he explains his feelings about the leadership, the P.L.O., the Oslo peace accords, the reasons he knew it would not succeed, as well as his visits to the Middle East and the land he was born in: Palestine-Israel. He says, although he was raised apolitically, his ties with the Middle East were re-established in the 70s after marrying his wife, Miriam.
Going back and forth between his childhood in the Middle East – Palestine, Cairo, and Beirut – and his life in America, he takes us through his very specific path: Growing from a young boy with perfect pitch and a perfect memory who loved music and books, into one of the most prominent intellectuals of our time, a free thinker, whose English was amazing and whose books are controversial. Talking about music, he mentions that his friendship with Daniel Barenboim opened his life to new landscapes, unfolding fields that sustained him.
Edward Said shares a story about his father asking his teachers at his graduation, "So, how did Edward do?” He was first or second in class and the teachers answered, "Well, he did fine." "Yes," said his father, "But did he do his best?" "Not quite." "So he could have done better." He grew up feeling that there was always something he could have done but did not do, and talks about "filiation," what you get, and “affiliation," the connections you make when the other does not function. Said mentions Vico, Conrad, Rossini, and their influence, the fact that he had no regrets leaving Cairo because living in America allowed him to have the best of the two worlds.
To the question, "Why do you teach? What is the point?" Edward Said answers: "When students finish high school, they are a finished product that are taught not to question the state. In teaching literature – classics – as well as high classes, art and music, I try to put my students in contact with these subjects and I try to trouble their minds instead of allowing it to settle." He enjoyed teaching and did not find it futile. Writing, he said, is important. The possibilities the internet offers today are precious, especially for the Arab world.
At the time of the interview, he was working on "The Last Period," and told Charles Glass about two alternatives: when one grows old, one settles his quarrels, reaching a semi-holy state. Another alternative is that the last period brings a greater intransigence, a greater complexity. The second one was more to his interest. One does not shut down at the end, but tries to open avenues for younger people, friends, others.
For those acquainted with Said's work and life, "The Last Interview" is a wonderful moment spent with a great mind. Those who discover the man who always felt "Out of Place," the scholar who wrote more than 20 books, will be amazed by the thought, the courage, the energy. This documentary will enable everyone to understand his struggle against illness and the courageous positions one of the greatest thinkers of our time took throughout his entire life.
This review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 48 (Summer 2004)
Copyright (c) 2004 by Al Jadid