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A report on Mohamed Diab’s Clash: How state TV deals with art

I’ve never met filmmaker Mohamed Diab and I’ve not watched his new film Ishtibak (Clash, 2016), but I’ve read about it like everyone else. And I did see a segment of “Ana Misr,” a show on state TV hosted by Amani al-Khayat, which included an outrageous report on Diab and his career.

I wrote this response after a long conversation with a family member made me realize that what I and many friends found upsetting about the report might be unclear to some people.

I have seen many unprofessional reports in the press and on TV, in Egypt and around the world. But this report was rare in its public, boastful proclamation of its lack of professionalism, reflecting the deterioration that is threatening everything around us, including the makers of the report. The report, the host, and her guest did not touch on the film’s content, and it was clear that they had not seen it — at least neither of them said otherwise. Yet they gave themselves the right to judge the film and make insinuations about the filmmaker’s motives in making it. A state-run TV show thus entrenches ignorance and subjects filmmakers to dangerous inquisitions by people who have not watched their films, without any accountability or even a response from the syndicate or the so-called filmmakers’ community.

Cued by dramatic music to signal the revelation of a grave secret, the report told us that Diab — “surprisingly” — travelled abroad to study cinema at the New York Film Academy in 2005. It then accused the director of being one of “the mercenary activists who rely on [foreign] funds.” It sounded as if the report’s editor was a member of Diab’s family upset that the filmmaker did not notify him before travelling. What could be surprising about the decision of a young man with a passion for cinema to travel to what is arguably the most important country in the cinema industry, to study there, and to return to become a director? When he has made this effort to educate himself, why would the filmmakers’ community turn against him and question his right to make films? What do the producers of this show know about Egypt’s Film Institute and the New York Film Academy, to assume that the first but not the second qualifies a director to make a film worthy of selection at Cannes?

The report listed four films written by Diab: Ahlam Haqiqiya (Real Dreams, 2007), Al-Gezira (The Island, 2007), Alf Mabrouk (1000 Congratulations, 2009), and Badal Faqid (The Replacement, 2009), all of which were authorized for public screening by Egypt’s Censorship Authority and screened in cinemas and on many TV channels, probably including state-owned TV channels. But the report claimed that these films offer a “distorted image of Egyptian society.”

The report then made the accusation that Diab’s 2010 film 678, which focuses on the sexual harassment of women, “portrayed Egyptian society as a society of harassment that violates women and their rights.” Clearly the report’s editor does not walk on our streets, read the newspapers, or have any female relatives. Perhaps they don’t even live here. State TV is asking filmmakers to refrain from discussing a horrifying problem that threatens over 50 percent of the Egyptian population, and thinks that discussing it in a film approved by the state harms the state. According to this logic, we should keep quiet and pretend that our streets are clean and safe, that women do not face harassment, and that everything is just perfect and full of hope and happiness.

After that, the report shows clips, none of which exceeds 10 seconds, edited out of TV interviews with Diab. In themselves these clips included nothing that offends state institutions or the Ministry of Interior, but by taking them out of context and arranging them in a specific way, the report forced them into statements that were not made. The only negative statement actually made, and here shorn of its context, was a criticism of Mamdouh Marai (a former justice minister), who definitely does not represent all state institutions.

Then we were shown an image of a news article with an easily legible title, in which Diab says that Ahmed Malek is a great actor, and that, “if he made a mistake, we should hold him accountable, but not destroy him.” The “Ana Misr” reporter denounces Diab’s “odd statements” in support of the young actor after he handed out condom balloons to unsuspecting police on the fifth anniversary of the January 25 revolution. But nowhere in the article does Diab endorse Malek’s behavior, or even request that people forget and forgive. On the contrary, Diab insists on holding the actor, with whom he had worked on a recent film, accountable for his mistakes without destroying him.

After telling us that Diab also antagonized Egypt during the Giulio Regeni incident — without mentioning how he did so, and what exactly “antagonizing Egypt” means — the report brings up his new film Clash, raising questions about the film’s motives and objectives without discussing its artistic content, which the host and her guest also ignored after the report.

After thanking her colleague, reporter Mohamed Hakim, for what she described as the best report ever made for her show, Khayat addresses a question to young filmmakers at large: “Since when does the filmmakers’ community allow someone who hasn’t graduated from the Egyptian Film Institute to have such an opportunity?”

I can’t speak for the filmmakers’ community – in fact, I’m not sure what this phrase refers to exactly – and I also don’t know if anyone, other than the makers of the film and the board of the Cannes Film Festival (where it was recently screened in the Un Certain Regard section), can claim an effective right to approve or disapprove of Diab’s career choice. If Khayat was asking about approving or disapproving in a moral sense — this being the most one can do — I can only speak for myself as an Egyptian Film Institute graduate who is unfortunately still classified as a young filmmaker, despite the fact that I am well past 40 years old. My answer to her question would be: “Yes, I happily approve, because I don’t see the academic study of cinema as the only way to make films.” I don’t know of any other country that links the right to make films to study in a certain institution, that denounces a filmmaker for being outside this institution. In fact, most of my favorite filmmakers, Egyptian or international, didn’t study cinema academically.

I have read many comments online criticizing the report that make the claim that Clash is a good film and a decent representation of Egypt at Cannes. I don’t agree with this discourse. I have not seen the film and I have learned not to judge a film before seeing it, but my opinion about the “Ana Misr” report would have been the same, or perhaps stronger, if Clash turned out to be a poor film, and if it had not been selected at Cannes. We all should stand up against this way of dealing with artistic works, regardless of the work’s quality or context.

Ultimately, my greatest concern regarding this incident is the need to explain the report’s dangerous lack of professionalism, its assumptions and insinuations, because some people can’t see them or choose to ignore them.

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Tamer El Said