Clash (Eshtebak)

Egypt (2016) Dir. Mohamed Diab

It is universally recognised that religion and politics are two of the most divisive and incendiary topics of discussion people should avoid. Luckily, some of us live in a country where the two rarely cross paths; not everyone is so fortunate and their daily lives are dictated by this highly combustible conflict.

Clash opens with a brief history of the political upheaval in Egypt, the camera trained on the door of a police truck, shot from within. In 2011, the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak ended via a revolution and a year later Mohamed Morsi became president, but his passing of a temporary declaration granting him unlimited powers led to another revolution and the military overthrowing Morsi.

This caused a divide between the supporters of the military and the Muslim Brotherhood (referred to hereafter as MB) turning the streets into warzones as protestors from both sides making their voices heard and the army using excessive force to quash the dissenters in everyday cases of extreme violence.

Written by Mohamed Diab and his brother Khaled, the visual perspective of the entire film is from the interior of the aforementioned police truck, measuring a constricting 8 square metres. It sounds like a recipe for boredom but this couldn’t be more wrong – Diab wrings every last drop of tension, claustrophobia, and drama out of this scenario with the confined space being less a gimmick and more a stark leveller.

As the doors of the truck open, we witness soldiers aggressively bustle Egyptian-American journalist Adam (Hany Adel) and photographer Zein (Mohamed El Sebaey) inside, with Adam handcuffed to the bars on the window. Further along the road, the truck stops and various pro-military supporters are picked up, despite them arguing their loyalty to their cause.

They include nurse Nagwa (Nelly Karim), husband Hossam (Tarek Abdel Aziz) and teen son Fares (Ahmed Dash). More demonstrators are arrested at the next stop, this time MBs, who again were peacefully protesting the violence. Naturally the mood in the cramped truck turns nasty as both sides go at each other with angry fervour to the benefit of no-one, one man suffering a cut to the head from a razor blade attack.

Viewed from a non-partisan perspective, we find ourselves unable to form an allegiance for anyone on a political level as both sides are as bad as each other, yet our ingrained sense of putting humanity before politics and religion allows us to single out someone like Nagwa, who deliberately got arrested because they took her son, for sympathy and concern.

Both sides are made up of people of differing ages, class and philosophical outlook, so there is no single “type” being pilloried or misrepresented here, putting Diab’s political opinion into a similarly objective one like ours. If anything the brutality of the military and their myopic approach to rounding up anyone who looks remotely troublesome regardless of their affiliation puts them in the role of antagonist, as it should.

When 14-year old A’isha (Mai El Ghaity) is picked up with her elderly father, it is because she is wearing a hijab, therefore is a troublemaker. A’isha becomes a symbol of the innocent victims, forced to endure humiliation when needing to relieve herself in a cramped van full of sweaty, brawling men. A plea to let her go outside is rebuffed by the soldiers, forcing everyone else to gang up and berate them for their insensitivity.     

At least one soldier, rookie Awad (Ahmed Abdel Hameed) is sympathetic to Aisha’s pleas and steps forward to help her, earning a swift admonishment from his superior who is “only following orders”. This convenient yet gutless sophistry rears its head all too often during the film as the captives, and those in other trucks, are suffering from heat and dehydration but not afforded respite because of the “rules”.

This then is really Diab’s beef, exposing the power hungry bravado and hubris of the military even at the lowest level as they forego even the basic of human rights for others during a protest against a man whose autonomous decree offended them so much. It’s an irony lost of the vainglorious and self-righteous which is why films like this need to be made, which are then banned or suppressed thus proving the point.

Diab’s superb construction of the singular, confined setting doesn’t limit the scope of physical and visible action shown, allowing the camera’s lens to roam beyond the barred windows and open door to capture the fighting outside, creating an urgent and terrifying sense of helplessness when bullets hit the truck’s exterior, or tear gas bombs are thrown into their proximity.   

Being partly a human interest tale, the escalating sensation of dread within the captives is perfectly pitched but Diab is keen to explore how over time they free themselves from their political and religious shackles to survive as a unit. This is the most important message Diab is trying to inculcate, explaining the necessary downbeat climax, which plays out like a horror film, to shock the audience into recognising the futility of allowing subjective beliefs to divide us as people.

The excellent cast truly suffer for their art but when the message is as important as this one, we can only reciprocate by listening to what they are saying. Rehearsals where in a mock-up but it was shot inside a real truck so the claustrophobia is not just palpable but genuine. The camera movements are jaunty and paranoid where necessary, flitting between invasive close-ups and relaxed wide(r) shots yet remains impassive throughout.

Clash takes its cues from interior only films like Lebanon and raises the ante in depicting the horrors of being confined to a singular space where the odds are physically and emotionally against you. Diab hits hard with his commentary and despite offering some hope the shocking reality is still too powerful to overcome in what is as vital, cynical, and bold piece of cinema as you’ll ever see.