Clash by Mohammed Diab

Mohammed Diab is a revelation of a filmmaker, maturing into his art in almost ballet-like synchronicity with the revolutionary upheavals that have marked the last 7 years in his native Egypt. It is as though he has, timely, emerged as a form of microcosm of contemporary Egyptian thinking: a reflective, concerned voice for the direction of his country, finding a critical cinematic platform at a time when the streets and the politics of the nation have captured the attention of the world. There is a sense in Diab’s writing and directing that closets need to be aired. Yet, one of Diab’s strengths is that without suffocating the necessary anger and impatience that is the hallmark of a new generation seeking to set things to right, he manages to negotiate socially and politically awkward truths in a deeply considered manner, jettisoning the dogmatic impulses, which underpin a hunger for change in favour of a nuanced narrative – one in which the viewer is very much left to play a decisive role in figuring out the best way forward.

If Diab wanted to make it clear that he was coming with something to say about the modern and changing Egypt, he could have hardly chosen a more pointed topic than the thorny issue of sexual harassment which underpins his 2010 debut feature BUS 678. This was a brave but a necessary work, tackling a malaise in Egyptian society which has long been swept under the rug – a sickness which some NGOS record in startling in statistics that over 98% of Egyptian women have suffered sexual harassment and or aggression. While Diab set this debut work in his home country, and clearly was motivated by concerns in that context, he unfolds the story in what appears to be a hallmark style of multiple “hero” narratives – a stylistic approach which lends itself to a broader or more universal appreciation of the subject matter. In Bus 678, Diab sets himself up as a voice worth listening to and worth watching. No small surprise then that he would take on the Egyptian revolution for his second feature. The powerful, gripping and deeply honest CLASH is as good a film about revolution as you are likely to see and though it is firmly rooted in its Egyptian context – this is a deeply universal perspective on struggle, brilliantly staged.

Through multiple character points of view, a cornerstone of Diab’s latest work, the viewer is brought on a journey in a day in the life of a disparate group of citizens who all end up sharing the suffocating confines a police van during a day of street protests after the fall of Mohammad Morsi. It is summer 2013. Diab expertly uses the box space of the van to evoke the heat and suffocating nature of Egyptian politics, in the frustrations and competing ambition of the groups of men and women caught together and being shuttled around through the chaos unfolding outside. The temperatures and frustrations rise – slowly at first – and then take on an exponential dimension as the van hurtles towards and uncertain destination – a nifty analogy for a country in turmoil. In what at times does come across like part cinematic homage, with echoes of 12 Angry Men or Glengarry Glenross,

Diab gradually peels off of the layers of frustrated ambitions, fading hopes, and burgeoning ambitions – narratives all executed with the expert efficiency of either Sidney Lumet or David Mamet.

Diab draws the viewer into the individual experiences of the detainees, pinning us to their emotional priorities and social anxieties. He flings us into combustible set pieces dragging us back and forth across allegiances, tangling the viewer in the tangled web of relationships until we are implicated in each one and until the politics of the individual begins to seep from our consciousness. Whereas, in any narrative of opposing sides, one allegiance might make one sympathetic and another less so, the final shocking denouement of CLASH, however, leaves the viewer completely abandoned of any notion of partisanship, but is left simply with a desperate anxiety for the fate of those human lives whose stories have become so familiar and whose politics seem utterly inconsequential.

ESHTEBAK (CLASH) 2016, directed by Mohammed Diab is on global release.

Colm Fahy is a human rights lawyer based in Madrid. He has many cultural and literary interests and is a regular contributor to Litbreak Magazine.