A few title cards bearing information about the Egyptian revolution is all we are given before being immediately dropped into the daring world of Clash (Eshtebak, 2016). But in this violent, politically charged environment, there is no build-up needed, the time for subtlety replaced by arguments and gunshots, as Mohamed Diab’s intense film lets us fill in the gaps of the story along the way by focussing on what happens to one singular group of very different people.
The chaos during the protests between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military is what causes this particular group to be thrown together, all finding themselves arrested and marched into the back of an armoured van to be dealt with later. And it is within this moving prison that we spend the whole of the film alongside them, witnessing the fallout from the removal of the Egyptian president entirely from the back of the vehicle, the glimpses of the protests outside sudden and harrowing to both us and them.
Writer-director Mohamed Diab’s decision to set his story in one location is what makes Clash all the more powerful – a high concept idea effectively done, much like Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon (2009) which showed the 1982 Lebanon war from inside a military tank. Similar to that film’s depiction of the futility of war, Diab uses his setting as a backdrop to make sense of the madness that took place in 2013. Diab and fellow scriptwriter Khaled Diab (his brother) use the divisions within the small group in the van as an allegory for the conflicts, religious-fuelled malice spewing back and forth between the Muslims who object to their president being removed and those who support the military control. And then there are the two reporters mixed up in all this, Egyptian-Americans who are a common enemy of everyone else there. Factions become more pronounced, lines are drawn, and soon it’s as noisy and dangerous as the clashes they see passing them by.
One location settings can often be at risk of becoming plodding once the narrative has been laid out, but with Clash the Diab brothers are quick to wrong-foot us at every turn, keeping us as tense as the group themselves. Their perfectly paced script twists and turns with unrelenting force, both of them using the personal and political differences of the people, as well as the predicament they find themselves in, to make their situation increasingly and heart-wrenchingly desperate, in turn ensuring we are nothing less than gripped, even by the quieter scenes.
Relentless as it often is, you’re thankful for the moments when they do let us and the group breathe, the personal lives of the characters coming into play at these times and adding another angle to the narrative. Mohamed Diab says in a thorough and fascinating interview on this Blu-ray release that their story “humanises everyone” on all sides – a message against the hysteria and one that people would do well to understand in times of conflict such as this. It is an idea beautifully backed-up by the expert characterisation of these twenty five characters, all perfectly portrayed by some incredible performances, particularly Nelly Karim as a nurse and mother caught up in the violence, Hani Adel as one of the reporters, and May Elghety as a young Muslim woman who is keen to make her voice heard during the protests. Yet really this is about the group as a whole, both in the story and during the production process, each of them put through a whole year of rehearsals before the film was even made (discussed on a detailed ‘Making Of’ on this disc) – an aspect which has allowed the actors to get under the skin of their characters and which in turn lends Clash a stunning realism.
That realism extends to the shooting of the film itself too, often filmed in real locations that put the production in danger from protesting Egyptian locals (which Diab also talks about in his interview), yet again something that gives it an overall potency and a lasting impression. To retain the verisimilitude even more, Diab shot his film in a real enclosed van, the actors present in every moment even when they weren’t being filmed. It is this method which also adds a horrifying feeling of claustrophobia that pervades each scene, the documentary style camera kinetic and intrusive – a style that looks superb on these Blu-ray visuals. The incredible sound design adds to that feeling of entrapment too, stones and bullets impacting horrifically on the metal around them, making our hearts pound as much as theirs.
Writer-director Mohamed Diab has given Clash a depth rarely seen onscreen, his decision to set this in the back of a van turning what could have been a normal political thriller into a captivating reflection of the myriad of reasons that caused the upset in Egypt at the time, and which continues to do so. We are alongside these characters every second, the story as real and terrifying for us as it is for them. As such the film’s ending is all the more chilling and unexpected, a gut punch of huge proportions that it is difficult to recover from, but that Diab knows is wholly necessary to show. An incredible film both in terms of how it was made and the ideas it puts forth.