Clash: An awkward movie that suits an awkward situation

Yesterday I watched Eshtabak (Clash, 2016) by director and scriptwriter Mohamed Diab.

The first time I heard about it was from Diab himself in a cafe in Zamalek where I bumped into him, director Amr Salama and a few friends. Gezira 2 (The Island 2, 2014), co-written by Diab and directed by Sherif Arafa, had just been released.

A lot of young people were angry that The Island 2 defended the police and accused the 2011 revolution of causing chaos that in turn unleashed Islamist hysteria, thuggery and a wave of crime. It was shocking because Diab was known for supporting the revolution.

Despite being pressured by everybody at the table, who were united in condemnation of The Island 2, Diab said important things about his complex relationship with the film and with Egypt’s cinema industry in general. He talked about how important it is for voices like ours to have a role in commercial cinema and in popular cultural production that can reach a wide audience.

I agreed theoretically, yet The Island 2 was an example of how good intentions alone can’t make either beautiful art or influential politics. Diab’s talent as a professional scriptwriter availed The Island 2 and granted it commercial success and even — as a simple action movie — a taste of humanity that distinguishes it from its ilk. But Arafa — a director who has spent the last 30 years in the industry and was instrumental the success of many films presenting a controversial image of Egypt’s politics through his unusual proximity to the state — had final say on what the movie should say, and why it should exist at that particular moment.

Diab said enthusiastically at the cafe that he was working on his own film, which would say what he thinks without interference or distraction, and which would — God willing — explain his real stance on the revolution to an audience accusing him of selling out.

Later, news emerged about Diab’s film before he finished shooting — that it was shot entirely inside a police van and was about a group of citizens locked inside. This set-up’s cinematic challenge and strong (though obvious) symbolism put the movie clearly in a “revolutionary” framework. I wondered how ready the censorship board and the rabid media were for such a movie.

Clash opened the Cannes Un Certain Regard competition and got positive reactions from prominent international figures in the industry, which made me happy because the relationship between many Egyptian artists and internationality is problematic. Many condescendingly talk about xenophilia and most recognize that certain geopolitical imbalances may influence international cultural events and result in certain works at certain times being celebrated for certain reasons. Some suffer from the “outside world’s” touristy orientalist approach, whereby western viewers can only see exotic places where entertaining people ride camels and slap their faces when they are sad — and they’re always sad. International recognition of an Egyptian film made under the circumstances we have to work in does give the Egyptian cultural producer a certain voice, one that may allow him or her to challenge the image western viewers want, or inspire other cultural producers to.

After the tidings of that international ovation came an attack on Clash from Egyptian state TV and its lovers. It was accused of denouncing the events of June 30, 2013, which saved Egypt from dissolution and resuscitated it, etc. Egypt’s public sphere is now entirely controlled by the state and the only narrative accepted is the military’s, even though there are millions of narratives, and everybody who witnessed history has the right to see it the way they like. Clash’s narrative pissed off TV presenter Amany al-Khayat so the media categorized it as anti-state. I expected it not to be released, despite the embarrassment that should be for the government, censoring a movie praised so highly outside its borders, although this is not a government influenced much by shame.

This attack was like a green light for young people to gather around Clash and support it. Like Ashraf Abdil Baqi’s conscript character says in Arafa’s Terrorism and Kebab (1992): “I’m totally for anything that bothers Mr. Major General Pasha.”

A few days before Clash was released in Egypt, Diab wrote online about a war against the movie and an intention to sabotage it. The distributor had suddenly withdrawn, and there seemed to be a plan to suffocate the movie instead of censoring it. With inflamed enthusiasm, Diab urged his many online followers to stand behind the film and make it succeed, and wrote later about threats to Egyptian-Swedish director Tarik Saleh because of his movie (probably this year’s The Nile Hilton Incident, but not mentioned in Diab’s post) criticizing the Interior Ministry. Gradually the audience relationship with Clash transformed from one that evaluates it according to how appealing it is as an artwork to one of expressing your political views by paying the producer your money. Things got mixed up.

Clearly Diab was seeking to utilize social media as a space populated by many angry young people who feel exiled from Egypt’s public sphere to create a core for a human mass that connects with the film. Many directors dream of having as many people as possible watch their films, and many benefit from their movies’ commercial success, as it gives them negotiating power with producers and makes it easier to make the work they want to make. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing commercial success but the sensitivity of Clash’s topic created contradictions between what it is and what it wants the viewer to say about it.

The exaggeration used to market Clash as “revolutionary” infuriated many people already fed up by the flattening and populism of revolutionary discourse between Mubarak’s ousting and June 30. It possibly also reminded many of the revolutionaries’ repeated failure to form any political bodies or figures that represent them. Commentators mocked the way the movie was being treated like a protest or march, and debates started around the paradox of a “revolutionary” movie produced by moderately conservative Islamic preacher Moez Masoud. Then Diab’s personality itself and the strength of his relationship with revolution as a progressive liberated idea came under the microscope. There was a chance for an important discussion — in my opinion — about the various meanings and interpretations of the words “revolution” and “revolutionary,” which have lost meaning through factions using it to alternately describe themselves or their opponents depending on the benefits of the context, a dynamic that seemed to be of interest to Clash itself, yet was lost amid the noise.

After all that, watching the film was rather disappointing. Despite many choices the filmmakers made to create as good a movie as possible, it came out staggering, confused and faltering over what it wanted to say.

Clash restricts itself to occur entirely inside the police van, so everything the camera sees is the inside the truck plus what can be see outside through its windows and its infrequently open door. The camera’s movement is similar to the human eye’s, and its angles and elevations are limited by human abilities. The compositions rarely overwhelm the realism of the situation, which creates obstacles and dark shadows between the action and the camera, which is affected by the truck’s movements like the people are. These factors reinforce the viewer’s feeling of involvement in what is happening.

Constant feelings of suffocation and danger infect the viewer with a tension broken every now and then by moments of quietness or comedy as the story develops with an irregular rhythm. Sharp cuts between contrasting, uncomfortable angles increase the sense of disorder. The perpetual tension — which many commercial action movies invest in — grants the viewer a stable level of sensual engagement with the movie, just as you turn your head toward the TV screen in a grocer’s shop when you hear an explosion or a car chase — maybe you don’t care that much about the emotional context, but many commercial filmmakers’ aim is your sensual preoccupation with the stimulants their movie gives you.

The aesthetic problem with this tension is that Clash’s topic is very sensitive. In real life, everybody sees the last half-decade in Egypt’s history from different angles, and sharp disagreements have erupted over it. Some people’s convictions about it are holy as doctrine, and others’ are associated with unforgettably catastrophic tragedies and shocks. Mixing the director’s personal, political — and possibly controversial — point of view with such commercial tension is very risky. Viewers disappointed by the way the Muslim Brotherhood or the police are depicted, or any other historical detail in the story, express themselves with the same tension the movie puts them in seeking their pleasure, which is clear in the explosive way many people have expressed dislike for the movie online.

Clash talks about a very violent period in Egypt’s history, and the filmmakers likely saw potential for a successful cinematic recipe in that violence.

They endeavor to present this recipe in a new way that uses a relatively modern cinematic language, investing in trendy aesthetics: Unusually colorful and harsh light sources and nifty camera movements create the look of rough YouTube footage associated with politically significant moments. Yet the mind-numbing pleasure of watching a movie with nothing more than entertaining noises and motions keeps colliding sharply with the moments when Clash wants to be serious, so almost all the confrontational dialogues between the characters — who sometimes bluntly resemble Egyptian social stereotypes — end up shallow and overly rhetorical. This is perhaps also due to the limited time available for the characters to speak due to the emphasis on banging, slamming and stunts. Yet Clash even loses the chance to explore its explosive situation with an entirely action-based approach, creating repeated scenes of people stoning the truck in a dull manner, making repetitive noises the actors respond to with the same repeated screams.

The clash between the movie’s entertainment dose and its political message is artistically uncomfortable and stirred inside me an ethical dilemma about the act of creating an entertaining interstice dealing with painful events like those Egypt has witnessed recently. I remembered watching Kanye West’s riotous music video for No Church in the Wild, which was released shortly after 2011, with an American friend who said: “I feel uncomfortable watching these shots because after what I’ve seen in Egypt I now realize that the truth is not that cool, and many Americans don’t know that.” Maybe there’s a slight hint in Clash’s journalist (Hany Adel) at concerns of this sort that Diab has about the ethics of his own work, which ultimately benefits from other people’s misery.

Clash’s evolution from idea to screen occurred during a time in which Egyptian society’s brain has been heavily controlled by a ferocious media machine executing politically militaristic instructions that envision the Brotherhood, and the democracy that brought them to power, as a huge threat to Egypt’s stability as a state and its mode of existence that suits the generals’ convictions. Many young people and intellectuals disagree with this, and believe that investing in this much hate gravely affect Egyptians’ minds on the long run. Diab is one of these people, and it’s clear from Clash that he wants to swim against what he feels is the mainstream current to build his movie’s philosophy entirely on the idea that we are all human. He forced himself to search inside each character for humanity and try to change viewers’ possibly superficial judgments about “the other.” This notion, despite its apparently good intentions, hits obstacles that make it unconvincing and simplistic when applied to a context as complex as Egyptian politics.

This is probably because Diab reduces “humanity” to the ability to show compassion and feel responsibility for others, which are the feelings that gradually grow in the prisoners, transforming them from mortal enemies due to ideological differences into partners in imprisonment and anguish who try to help each other escape the crisis that has assembled them, as in any traditional crisis movie. The problem is that the only element that doesn’t share the condition of imprisonment with everyone else is the active element controlling everybody’s fate for most of the movie: the police officers — the main reason these people are in this fix in the first place. Yet Clash tries to commit to humanizing them too in order to affirm its message, which is equivalent to trying to humanize the earthquake or sharks in a Hollywood thriller.

Incidentally, in Clash as in real life, there’s a huge difference between police officers and police conscripts. But conscripts — like prisoners — are stripped of their free will and obliged to execute orders at all times, so involving them in the imprisonment (one conscript is locked in the truck) doesn’t really dissolve the barrier between the Interior Ministry as a government agency protected by law and the citizens it systematically brutalizes. It only creates confusion and controversy about the movie’s hesitant position vis-à-vis authority, a confusion that increases every time the policemen would show their “humanity” as though they’re victims of the situation like everyone else. Unfortunately this is not the case: policemen are the situation, the state is the situation, the state is the earthquake and the sharks. Diab’s efforts to avoid accusing the state, whether for artistic or political reasons or just to evade censorship, is unfortunate, and was contradicted afterward by his marketing of the movie as revolutionary.

I’m very interested in drawing a deeper image of the police officer — the two options mostly available in Egyptian cinema are very limiting. Police officers are neither angels (as played by Ahmad al-Sakka) or devils (as played by Abbas Abuel Hassan). Some movies do deal with this complexity with sophistication, like The Escape or The Innocent by Atef al-Tayeb, and Mohamed Khan’s An Important Man’s Wife. These movies choose their good and evil clearly, and accurately connect this with what their makers felt was wrong with the country. In contrast, it is very problematic attempting to humanize a struggle between a group of citizens locked in a truck against their will if the filmmaker does not have a clear position on the person who put them in the truck.

In my opinion, a policeman’s humanity is not only in the moments when he shows sympathy for his victims, and it’s not only in his heroic sacrifices protecting a country that doesn’t really know whom to antagonize and whom to protect. A policeman’s humanity can be in his fear or uncertainty, or the factors that push him to hide behind the protection of a uniform, then harm those around him. The audience shouldn’t only sympathize with figures wronged or hurt as they “do the right thing.” It’s possible to sympathize with people who are making mistakes. Maybe that will teach us to accept error as human nature, and that our judgment on others doesn’t have to be based on what we think is right and wrong.

Diab’s message in Clash, which his brother Khaled Diab co-wrote with him, is one I appreciate on a human level, and I’m happy that he managed to bring this movie to life despite the difficulties. The image it shows ultimately, despite how artistically disappointing it is for me, is reflective of the amount of thinking and acting space available for Egyptian cultural producers in Egypt right now. It’s an image influenced by a history of dealing with cultural production in Egypt, a shaky political situation, social debates over values and ideas that are too basic to be debated in 2016. The verbal brawls that happened around the movie seemed — ironically — an organic extension of the movie’s events, with the same anger, blindness and hysteria that it failed to find something coherent to say about.

My main problem with Clash is simply that it’s a revolutionary, reactionary, koshary movie that has everything. Just as January 25 was a progressive, Islamic, coup-ish revolution. In a society where opposition is led by groups at war with the future and progress, oppressed by a secular authority that arrests people for not fasting during Ramadan, where intellectuals quarrel using the language of demagogues, and audiences go to the movies to show solidarity with a revolutionary movie that sympathizes with police sacrifices. In short: It’s an awkward movie that suits an awkward situation.

For another take on Clash, click here.


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