How do you comprehensively depict an impossibly complex event like the Egyptian January 25 Revolution and its aftermath on screen? This is the question Egyptian filmmakers have ventured to tackle since the outbreak of the country's transformative uprising in 2011. The first batch of movies—omnibus fiction 18 Days, the documentary The Good, the Bad and the Politician, Ahmed Rashawan's Born on January 25 —were reactionary pieces, imbued with the jubilant sensation of Mubarak’s ouster. Commercial films saw a great opportunity to make a quick buck out of the revolution fever with forgotten trifles such as An Ant's Cry and Tic Tic Bom. Read more successful were Ahmad Abdalla's dialogue-free Rags & Tatters and Yousry Nasrallah's misunderstood After the Battle, a messy panorama of a perplexed post-Revolution Cairo.
Jehane Noujaim's The Square, still the most known visual document of the revolution, was a valiant and admirable attempt to document the turbulent transitional phase the country was going through. It, nonetheless, often felt over-simplified, painting a heroic portrait of political activism without considering the grave misgivings of the intellectual left that opened the door to the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood and the subsequent military takeover.
The June 30, 2013 military takeover radically changed the cinematic landscape. The type of overtly political filmmaking popular after January 2011 disappeared, as freedom of expression began to dwindle.
In this exceedingly restrictive landscape, the arrival of Mohamed Diab's politically-driven sophomore feature Eshtebak, or Clash, was bound to make waves, and it did. Clash made headlines when it was chosen as the Un Certain Regard competition opener in Cannes, the first Egyptian movie to receive this hugely prestigious honor. The subsequent rave reviews from trade publications positioned it as the biggest Arab film of the year.
The mega Egyptian-French production is set entirely in the back of a police truck following the toppling of elected Muslim Brotherhood (M.B.) president Mohammed Morsi. At an anti-M.B. demonstration, different protesters are arbitrary thrown into the vehicle by the police: an Egyptian-American Associated Press reporter and his cameraman; a nurse, her husband, and her kid; a small-time D.J.; a car cleaner; and a telecommunication shop owner. Like most journalists at the time, the reporter is met with extreme hostility from both the police and the other protesters, shamed for holding an American passport and accused of spying.
The real clash occurs after a number of disparate M.B. affiliates¾official party members, sympathizers, an ISIS recruit in the making, a preacher, and his teenage daughter¾are arrested in a pro-Morsi protest and thrown with the others in the truck. Things get ugly from the get-go: fistfights, verbal abuse, and mutual accusations of treason. The heat intensifies as the journey drags on, yet the collective physical suffering gradually mends their differences and forces them to discover their shared humanity.
Clash is undeniably an accomplished piece of entertainment, but an incisive, insightful portrait of a post-June 30 Egypt it certainly is not. Diab trenchantly captures the growing paranoia engineered by the media at the beginning of the film: the blind suspicion of all journalists and foreign nationals; the burning desire for the annihilation of the Muslim Brotherhood and the spread of odious nationalism; the ‘us versus’ them rhetoric and uncontrollable chaos. But that’s as far as the film gets in offering a different narrative from what the local media has propagated since then.
Diab avoids creating backstories for his characters, and, when he does, they come off as archetypes. His protagonists are mostly talking heads representing the different sides of conflict. But the picture the director paints of a collapsing Egypt is frustratingly one-dimensional and flat, offering little explanation for the novice Western audience and little to analyze for Egyptian viewers. The truck is not the microcosm of Egypt various Western observers claim it to be; so many perspectives are missing: the middle class, the military, and the Coptic Christian minority. The narrative and visual scheme of the film is certainly attractive, but it doesn’t give room for understanding the real motivations behind the behavior of these characters.
Diab cut his teeth in mainstream filmmaking, rising to fame as the writer of the immensely successful El Gezira (The Island) series. His directorial debut, Cairo 678, a searing account of sexual harassment, was met with unexpected commercial success in Europe. Both films are socially conscious message movies, with every negative connotation the term carries: they’re blunt, didactic, and loud.
Clash has one objective on its mind: to present a different discourse about the Muslim Brotherhood and push for reconciliation. To his credit, Diab doesn’t absolve the M.B. of the crimes they committed in their brief ruling period. But he also refuses to lump them all into the unjustly restrictive terrorist category. Clash is a grand cry for understanding and empathy, and, at a time when the M.B. is made the scapegoat for all of Egypt’s problems, Diab’s message can’t be more timely. Yet, the “let’s all love and accept each other” fustian doesn’t make for compelling, worthwhile cinema.
The most alarming question mark surrounding Clash is its unrealistically mild treatment of the police. The Egyptian police’s systemic use of torture and extensive abuse of power before, during, and after June 30 are well-documented by local and international media alike. The portrayal of different ranking officers as benign enforcers of law who only resort to violence when they’re provoked is not just inaccurate, it’s misleading. With the reports and various recorded footage of the police’s malpractices in mind, Clash can feel to the informed viewer like a glossy, watered-down version of a much harrowing reality¾all surface and no depth.
Great political filmmakers—Jean-Luc Godard, Glauber Rocha, Elia Suleiman—wore their politics unabashedly on their sleeves, disregarding any commercial or social obligations. Diab is not an auteur, and his balancing act is fraught with too many compromises to provoke, stimulate, and truly unsettle.