The Arab Spring. It’s one of those topics that everyone knows the name of, but very few of us over here in the West know what actually went on and the enduring legacies it leaves behind. One country in particular which felt the effects of the popular uprisings was Egypt, and the incredible new film by Mohamed Diab is one of the most visceral and stinging films made yet about this recent but terribly important piece of contemporary history.
In 2011 the uprising in Egypt lead to the thirty year presidency of Hosni Mubarak ending. What followed was the new President of Egypt being a member of the Islamist party*, leading to the largest protests in Egyptian history the following year. The president was forcefully removed by the military and in the following days clashes between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood engulfed the streets in turmoil.
The entirety of Clash takes places in a police van. In the opening moment two reporters are arrested by the military and thrown into the back of a truck. As the army moves on, the desperate journalists call other members of the protest – a family and two young men – over to help them escape but only manage to get them arrested as well. This keeps happening until there are about twenty-five people locked in the back of the truck, and in the middle of the Egyptian revolution it’s hard to figure out who is more of a threat: the army who locked them up or the Muslim Brotherhood who they’re fighting.
Small in scope but massive in ambition, Clash is confirmation that Mohamed Diab is an exciting new presence on the international film scene after this and his previous film 678, which was lauded on the international festival circuit. This can’t have been easy to film – the cramped space and the throng of people means that personal space doesn’t even factor in. Setting up the camera and making sure everyone involved knew their markers must have been a nightmare, but Diab and the incredible work by his cinematographer Ahmed Gabr means that this is one hell of an experience. It’s a white knuckle ride which completely earns the label ‘thriller’.
The viewer’s sympathies are shifted almost minute to minute. Each character has their own motivations and small backstory; the script co-written by Diab is an amazing creation. To have so many things going on but still managing to maintain the audience’s emotions is an achievement of the highest order. Clash has joined the ranks of films like Bloody Sunday and United 93 – realistic, captivating and uncomfortable experiences which take a single event and produce a film which happens in almost real time. They must be difficult to make but when they succeed they work wonders.
Interesting to note is the lack of an overt political statement. The company in the van is Egypt in microcosm; seemingly all of Egyptian society is represented in scenes which are uncomfortable in their refusal to make easy heroes and villains. The army and the Muslim Brotherhood are as bad as each other, and both the best and the worst that humanity has to offer is on display as the massive ideological differences that are happening on a national scale mean that ordinary people on every side suffer.
There are nearly no easy answers here, simply people reacting to and perpetuating the chaos that surrounds them. Clash is a raw, visceral and above all unforgettable experience which should be seen and lauded by as many people as possible. Don’t miss this one!
*Probably good to clarify: Islam and Islamism are not the same thing – Islam is the religion. Islamism is the political movement which works towards a state being governed by the traditions and laws laid out by Islamic principles.
Clash screens at ACMI for one week only from 30th March to 6th April.