This is the movie that is set entirely in the back of a police van. If you hadn’t already heard about Clash, which premiered at Cannes last year and has had an impressive festival run, I promise that you will be hearing more. This second feature from Egyptian writer (with Khaled Diab) and director Mohamed Diab limits itself in daring way, attacks its intriguing concept unflinchingly, sets a high bar for itself, and ends up as a challenging and provocative bit of cinema. I’m just not sure that it’s entirely successful for those of us who don’t live day to day with the political and cultural upheaval Egypt has been enduring, who aren’t steeped in the minutiae of the social situation.
Set in summer 2013, after the Egyptian army ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, Clash follows a day of turmoil in Cairo as protesters on both sides of the conflict, as well as journalists and innocent bystanders, are sweep into the van and then are delayed on their way to jail by ongoing riots and unrest in the city, which they witness only through the small windows of the van (which frustratingly restricts our understanding of what is happening). Tempers would flare at the best of times, but the metal box of a vehicle is stiflingly hot and the cops refuse to give the prisoners water, so breaking points are reached pretty quickly.
I like the common ground that Diab allows some of the protesters on either side to find with one another, at least temporarily, and I appreciate the point made by the presence of characters who are inflexible: they are the ones prolonging the larger battle, probably. The humor of those who are apolitical — like the young hipster who’s mostly concerned about how his hair is holding up in the heat — seems to represent a fairly universal human reality, that even at times of immense struggle, most people are little more than disinterested onlookers who just wish everything would settle down one way or another. But it seems as if in 97 minutes of runtime with nothing for these characters to do but talk to one another, they would be more than just briefly sketched as people. Or perhaps — very likely, in fact — there are nuances at work that outsiders like me simply cannot grasp. Maybe it’s too much to expect more from a film that is intended as a moment in time, not a geopolitical lesson, but for the likes of me, something essential was missing.