Clash: The Diab brothers' humanism over personal politics

Adham Youssef, Friday 5 Aug 2016

Mohamed Diab's artistic masterpiece follows characters stuck in a police truck and their humane interactions

(Photo: still from Clash)

Mohamed Diab's highly anticipated film Eshtebak (Clash) sparked both controversial and highly positive reviews after its release in Egypt on 27 July.

Going into its second week, the film managed to reach over EGP 2 million in revenues, a monumental achievement for an independent film. Co-written by the Diab brothers, Khaled and Mohamed, the film was chosen to open the 69th Cannes Festival in the Un Certain Regard section.

The film opens in a theatrical manner with a prisoners' transport vehicle truck ready to host the actors: two journalists, several army supporters, Islamist protesters, and a police conscript.

The Diab brothers provide us with their version of violent events that surrounded the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi from power in July 2013, highlighing humanitarian dilemmas which had troubled the country since the 2011 revolution.

Starring Nelly Karim, Tarek Abd El-Aziz, Hany Adel, Ahmed Malek, Ashraf Hamdi, Mohamed Abdel Azim, and Gamil Barsoum, the characters are well studied and their limits, fears, and hopes can easily be extracted and delivered to the viewers. 

Out of the twenty characters, many gave an astonishing and realist performance.

If we look at the depiction of Islamists in Egyptian cinema passing by Adel Imam's angry sexually frustrated bearded characters (which is often comic), or Alaa Aswani's poor alienated violent young characters (a narrative based on the Egypt's 1990s confrontation with Islamist guerrillas), Clash excelled in showing how complicated this ideology and character really is. Diab's characters show this complexity, from a Brotherhood old timer, to an English speaking modern young man, to a Jihadist wannabe, passing by the politically aware female protester and alienated supporters of the Brotherhood.

The characters contrary to previous depictions, who we can distinguish as Islamists as they were arrested from a protest that chanted "Islamic! Islamic!", are politically aware of the cause, and their consciousness elevates. As violence escalates, some of the Islamist characters chant "retribution by bullets", a rhetoric opposite to the will of the senior old-timer Brotherhood character.

"The Brotherhood is just a phase. I am heading to Syria," says one of the character who is played by Mohamed Radwan, who was tortured for years in State Security detention centers.

Diab argues that Brotherhood members are not blind followers of their leaders, but actors in an increasingly chaotic political scene. Similarly, the young female Islamist, A’isha (Mai El-Ghaity), is not a middle aged peasant forced to protest with her patriarchal family members, rather she convinces her father of going out and joining the demonstrations.

In one of the scenes the Ultras-like Islamist character makes fun of the female character calling her "a child", a debate often carried out in Islamist circles usually initiated by young males who fear their police resistance techniques might be limited by the presence of women.

(Photo: still from Clash)

Another interesting Islamist character is played by Ahmed Gamal, whose role is worthy of praise (as a source of light comic relief in the film), but it is not worth giving up his punchlines and physical reactions in this review.

On a macro level, Diab also strikes a characteristic that is a specialty of the Brotherhood: organization and distinction. Amid all the fear and chaos, the top-down structure of the group is enforced by the senior member in the car, distinguishing people into members and supporters and non-members, a step that leaves some of the supporters critical of the whole cause.

Moving to military supporters, Khaled Kamel played a parking boy changed into a thug. Kamel has proved himself as an artist with the ability of showing the essence of the assigned character, from his early roles in Ibrahim Al-Abyad as a thug to his appearance in the Ramadan series Grand Hotel. Kamel gave the thug a humanized context.

The agony our characters are going through, according to Diab's script, needed a 'voice of reason'. Hany Adel was that voice. Adel, an Egyptian-American AP journalist believing in the power of journalism, has the lines of wisdom and nostalgia.

Adel is a great actor (and musician), but his fans need to see him in other roles where such talent is tested and celebrated.

The Diab brothers, who wrote the script together, both failed and succeeded when depicting police personnel, who throughout the film became the oppressors and the sole controllers of the character's fate.

The character of Central Security Forces officer (played by Atef Ammar) needed more than a well-built yelling white (as officers don’t usually sit in the sun) male with a beret.

Ammar needed more aggressiveness and possibly more lines, compared with Awlad Rizk's Mohamed Mamdouh, for example. Diab suggests a humane side of the officer when he offers to release the women and children, an initiative many activists and former political prisoners described as rare, even when he feels sympathy for his slain colleague. Ammar participates with his police force killing an unarmed and detained militant and then calls the wife of his slain colleague.

The most interesting, and well acted, two characters were the conscripts in the controversial riot police apparatus, Awad (Ahmed Abdel Hamid) and Ewis (Mohamed Al-Suezy).

Awad is a soft hearted peasant who will break down and mutiny against orders once he sees the misfortunes of his fellow human beings, while Ewis, a stubborn Upper Egyptian, will take time before his consciousness pressures and helps the characters, leading to his detention in the truck as well.

As the characters improvise and strive for survival, Ahmed Gaber talent as a cinematographer (and his camera) snuck into the truck and became our eyes. Gaber's camerawork caught the hysteria of being trapped unwillingly, and captures the characters' effort to go out whether legally or illegally, and their expressions when they find out that the truck can be sometimes safer than the outside world.

(Photo: still from Clash)

Depending on the sun as a source of light was of no use for Gaber as the night approached, leading him to lit night scenes with a small shaky pulp and finally the green laser beams, which was heavily used in the 30 June protests. Cinematography wise, Clash falls under several one-location masterpieces, or at least films that made a very tiny location its theater of action, such as Lebanon (2009), Das Boot (1981), or Lifeboat (1944).

A scene, lit by green lasers, where 20 fanatically scared human beings are resisting for survival is must see, and is a textbook example of guerrilla style cinematography.

As the plot develops, the truck, our theater, changes its surroundings but the camera is still trapped. Inside, Diab's compositions were weaker than the elements it contained.

To talk about a plot in Clash is in some way tricky. We can say that the characters are inside a plot, but we cannot claim they gathered due to a plot. The script treated this by successfully attempting to equalize them as oppressed, whether economically, by torture, by lack of freedom of speech, family negligence, or the absence of opportunity or basic human needs.

Nevertheless, the authors of the film fell into a Liberal-ish and human development literature inspired narrative that dictates that everyone is mislead and a victim of their own belief, and that all are in the same truck to either reconcile or face an uncertain, maybe deadly, fate.

While aiming to get the best of that fate, the characters are stuck in the truck, so we follow their humane interactions which take place because they are human and not because they are males, females, Copts, Muslims, cops, thugs, or religious. A child plays XO, an Islamist shifts from Jihadist chants to romantic songs, a hardcore patriotic old man is concerned about his son's destiny, a thug cries his dead dog, and a once stubborn riot solider laughs. 

When a teargas canister is placed near the truck, the characters collectively block windows with clothes and the outside cannot be seen or heard, giving them a chance to peacefully mingle, share dreams, laugh, sing, as the truck has stopped.

However, the ease with which political rivals can easily forget their disputes and raise their humanity is shortly lived, as the truck continues to move.

Mysteriously, after their blockbuster (Al-Gizera 2, 2014) which argued that the 25 January revolution and its violence went according to plan by angry bearded Islamists and youth, Clash comes to bash away any sense of 'organisation' and highlight the lack of it, moreover its opposite: chaos.

Simply chaos and plans gone wrong are the reason why the 20 characters are stuck in the eight metre long police truck, hence the script has two perpendicular developments to look for: the mental and health status of the detainees, and the destination of the truck.

The filmmakers and story didn’t want to lose the support of anyone. For them a policeman is oppressive because he is confronted by protesters and a militant is created because he was tortured. Such shallowness caused the film severe losses. Diab, as a director, provided a very well made realist film, worthy of praise and support. But as a writer, Diab provided a simplified "fast food" narrative easily digested by foreign viewers and Tom Hanks, but not for an audience who was traumatized by radical shifts and violence in the past years.

Clash was propagated to be a film about the revolution, and a film opposed by decision makers. Cleary it is not.

Its artistic level and the devotion its staff, which gave a due care to the smallest detail, makes it a masterpiece.

However, its apolitical stance, which is political whether we like it or not, makes it close to the 1990s wave of 'blame all!' films such as Waheed Hamed's and Sherif Arafa's Terrorism and Kebab and Alleab Maa Al Kobar, and not, for example, Salah Abu Seif's anti-authority film Al-Bedaiah.

Nevertheless film critiques are written to review what the artists did, not what they did not.

(Photo: still from Clash)

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