I’m trying to calculate how much my wish for Clash to deal more directly with its politics is an extension of my own privilege. I mean, complaining that a film ain’t catering to my tastes as I sit in a nice seat in a art cinema with an almost entirely white clientele, seems almost hypocritical. Scratch that, it stupidly hypocritical. Maybe, I’d have seen more into it if I retained even a passing familiarity with the 2013 political revolutions that the film is set among. The film, I guess for the aid of audiences like me, has a minute (maybe two) long, textual description of the state of affairs to prime the audience. I’m grateful, without it I’d have probably been lost.
Set inside of a police van, Mohamed Diab’s compelling directorial choice to keep the camera within the metal shell for the entire running time as chaos reigns intermittently both inside and outside, is one of the best things about the joint. Setting up all these opportunities for cinematographer Ahmed Gabr to play with lighting and composition in ways that are striking and compelling and always inventive as the ordeal stretches from day into night, everything seeming squalid and beautiful.
The setup starts with the arrest of two journalists covering the riots. Then they arrest of a group of pro-revolutionary protestors, caught throwing rocks at the police van hoping to hit the reporters. They believe the American news is working against their political upheaval, the police interpret the thrown rocks as objection to the new state. Then they arrest a group of Muslim Brotherhood protesters, objecting to the coup that ousted their leader from office.
So, the inside of the van then both a microcosm of the political tensions that grip Egypt as a whole, and also a mobile danger vehicle, travelling between the sites of protest, bearing witness to the methods of police and protesters, the occupants trying to shield themselves from the dangers that threaten to breach the iron walls.
Its aspirations are heady. It wants to capture all Egypt within its taut 90 minute runtime. It don’t always manage so great. We got, and it varies, but I’m pretty sure our main cast is 14. Sure, as always the film got its favourites, Nagwa (Nelly Karim) a humanist nurse, accompanying and protecting her son and husband, rises up as sorta the hero of the piece. Her first action being insisting that the police incarcerate her too, not wanting to be separated from her family, so often coming up as the voice of reason and compassion, its well-constructed.
But for every character of her detail we get one like this young (I wanna say ambiguously queer, but I ain’t sure how coding works in Egyptian film) kid, or a homeless dude, or an old man, or this dude who I ain’t sure we really find out anything about aside from aside from his enthusiasm. Who never quite get a chance to escape from the small boxes hastily shaded around their characters.
Which holds the movie back in places where the immediate political reality of the joint falls away. It comes to feel like so many other single location thrillers, especially within the stage tradition, the circular arguments, the sometimes sloppy control of actors who have a tendency to start shouting too soon. The edit helping to keep a more fluid tone but some extended bits get a little tiresome.
Thankfully the film reaches a better place when the cast are having to react to external threats, again always the case in these sorts of flicks. Those times when the natural comradeship of a cast who are just having to spend a lot of time together is finally allowed to express itself. The way Diab contracts these moments, slowing down, opening out, he has an instinctual grasp of how to create these moments and hold them for a perfect amount of time. They’re not entirely original, but so well executed.
As the runtime goes on the pressure for a deliberate political statement to be made, it reaches one by the end. It’s holding me in tension, I can’t decide whether it’s a striking and deliberate statement, or an indecisive, cop-out one. It certainly continues past the point of ambiguity but I can’t even decide if that’s a good thing. Moreover, I really don’t think in my position as a privileged white British person I’m really in the position to say, needless to say, on a purely narrative level it satisfies.
Whatever, let’s not get hung up on my guilt while I’m trying to praise a film that I like. It’s a solid joint, a somewhat average script (cowritten between Mohamed and Khaled Diab) bolstered immensely by the bravura direction and camerawork. Seems looking back at his credits he’s mostly a writer, it’s a strong second feature, I hope he gets more directing work.
Clash is still screening in select theatres.