Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The clash and the cliché

Hani Mustafa takes a critical look at revolutionary cinema

Al-Ahram Weekly

Revolutionary fervour filled the streets in Egypt for some three years starting on 25 January 2011 and going on for months after 30 June 2013. It was a thematic temptation for filmmakers eager to present their aesthetic and perhaps also their political vision of one of the most important periods in modern Egyptian history. But very little of the resulting fare was in any way distinctive or valuable, with the vast majority being below par.

No one ever knows what a given filmmaker’s precise motivation is at a given point in their filmography, but perhaps it was the commercial impulse that voided many fiction films of artistic and intellectual substance. The proportion of good films seems much higher among documentaries, which benefited from an entirely real positive emotional state: Jehane Noujaim’s The Square, Ahmed Rashwan’s Born on 25 January or Tamer Ezzat, Aiten Amin and Amr Salama’s The Good The bad and The Politician, for example.

Fiction films about the revolution that made it to the Cannes Film Festival include 18 Days (2011), composed of 10 short films by 10 directors including Yousri Nasrallah, Kamla Abu Zikri, Sherif Arafa, Ahmed Abdallah and Marwan Hamed and – more recently, only a few months ago in the Un Certain Regard section – Mohamed Diab’s Ishtibak (Clash). Various rumours have helped Clash gross LE1 million in the first week of its release, however.

One such rumour, which emerged during the Cannes Festival, was that the film dealt with a well-publicised incident in which 37 Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters were killed when the police threw a tear gas bomb into the locked van in which they were being transported.

The implication was that the film was an expression of political descent against the present order, something that took on weight when the television anchor Amani Al-Khayyat attacked Diab on her show, claiming with typically laughable naivety that he had worked to ruin Egypt’s reputation since his film on sexual harassment, 678. Still, the rumour that this was an oppositional film was used by its makers and distributors to garner the support of the politically disaffected as well as the curious to make it, relatively speaking, a commercial success.

The screenplay follows an ancient rule of Greek drama: unity of place and time. Its boldness in this respect is that it manages to gather numerous characters with various social backgrounds and political orientations inside the same Central Security van. The setting is therefore a kind of mobile prison; as a space it creates a situation in which everyone is forced to coexist if not cooperate to make life bearable. The time during which the film is set is the period when Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators were clashing with security repeatedly in the wake of 30 June when the MB puppet president Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power, in the period leading up to the disbanding of sit-ins by MB supporters on 14 August.

The film, written by Diab and his brother Khaled, opens with the arrest of AP correspondent Adam (Hani Adel) with his photographer; they enter the van. Once anti-Morsi demonstrators find out there is a foreign correspondent in the van they start pelting it with stones (the feeling among pro-army vigilantes at the time was that foreign correspondents were pro-MB); these too are arrested and brought into the van. Later the van moves along and collects some MB demonstrators.

The characters are written in a politically correct way, trying to strike a balance between good and bad in all of them; and this is probably why they come across as stereotypical and lifeless. Hani is an Egyptian-American who emigrated as a child with his father after the latter suffered in Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s political prisons, though it remains unclear whether said father was an Islamist or a communist. A lover of Egypt, Hani’s only motive is to document what is happening in detail regardless of who comes across as the villain – something that earns him the enmity of many perhaps including his photographer who has never been in such a situation.

The pro-army vigilantes include the elderly man Salah (Gamil Barsoum), whose extreme anti-MB position belies the fact that his son is a member of the organisation, a revelation that is not properly introduced but feels forced and unpleasant since it is designed to make the point that the contending political factions come from the same families. The young thug Rabie (Khaled Kamal), another vigilante, has no problem hurting a young MB member with a blade he keeps in his mouth but turns out to have a delicate, animal-loving side, showing true affection for his dog Garban (or “Mangy”).

Likewise the Islamist characters: the fat young man Tamer (Mohamed Gamal), who likes acting and singing – he has been to the director Sherif Arafa’s office in search of a role – and is capable of cracking jokes contrary to what is often said of Islamists. Diab’s most pathetic would-be master scene is when the young popular wedding DJ Mans (Ahmed Malek), incapable of dealing with the violence that’s growing in the MB-vigilante confrontation, turns on a popular mahraganat song on his mobile phone (which he managed to sneak into the van when he was arrested) bringing the phone to one ear and blocking the other while he closes his eyes...

The film presents Central Security troops in a somewhat idealistic way, for despite their abruptness they are performing their duties – using only water and eventually tear gas in the face of MB demonstrators using fireworks and stones. Only in one scene, when the sniper who killed a brigadier general is arrested, do we see police troops converging on a suspect and beating him to death; but even here their action may be justified from the emotional point of view.

Even the death of the young MB member Hudhaifa’s father in a different van takes place due to suffocation and is not directly caused by the police. Such political correctness – relatively speaking, of course – is evident when an otherwise severe officer, saying he has a family of his own, lets the nurse Nagwa (Nelly Karim) and her son Faris (Ahmed Dash) together with the little Islamist girl Aisha (Mai Al-Gheiti) to go home – except that they are prevented from doing so by the crossfire.

One Central Security guard tries to sneak Aisha into the bathroom but is prevented by his colleague Uwais (Mohamed Al-Suwaisi); Uwais himself develops a strong sympathy for those in the van in the last quarter of the film; in yet another brusque and unsophisticated allusion to “national unity” between Muslims and Copts, we see the cross tattooed on Uwais’s wrist while Nagwa is attending to it. Thus the clash between “honourable citizens”, as pro-army vigilantes were called, and Islamists comes across as a passing difference of viewpoints, nothing deeper or more dangerous.

For most of the film the director uses a fast handheld camera, trying to take stock of events outside the van through the iron grill of the little windows, making everything outside the van blurry and incomplete – which is a good thing from the directorial viewpoint, except that Diab occasionally has the door of the van open in order to show with clarity what he evidently feels are important scenes, once again creating a forced and unrealistic situation.

The film ends on what sounds like a symbolic, philosophical note when the young MB member now driving the vehicle that contains this microcosm of society – unable to open the door himself – drives back to the site of pro-MB demonstrations to seek his mates’ help, only to end up in an anti-MB demonstration where the van is upended.

When the idea of the film or a summary of its events is cited it is likely to evoke a strong piece of cinema to film lovers, recalling such successful films as Salah Abu Seif’s 1960 film about a broken lift, Bain Al-Sama wal-Ard (Between Heaven and Earth), or Sidney Lumet’s 1957 12 Angry Men, set within the jury’s chamber in the period when they have to agree on a verdict in a murder trial. But sadly the present film fails to live up to these models.

Indeed gathering a cast of characters in a confined space over a short period does not make a good film. In the present case, to avoid political bias at an extremely sensitive historical moment, the filmmakers have produced bloodless stereotypes. Perhaps their intention was to say that everyone is to blame equally for fighting and declaring their compatriots traitors, but their spotless image of the police fails to blame a central player. In his quest for a safe position Diab has communicated forced messages of correctness and eschewed all human depth.

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