Cannes Hidden Gem: 'Clash' Views the Arab Spring From the Back of a Police Van

Clash Hidden Gem Day 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Set entirely in a riot vehicle, Mohamed Diab's Un Certain Regard entry brings diverse characters together to examine the Egyptian civil war from multiple perspectives.

An action film set entirely — like, every single shot — in the back of a police riot van doesn’t sound exactly straightforward, but then nothing concerning Egypt’s recent turbulent history really does.

Mohamed Diab’s Clash may not be the first film to emerge from the two bloody civil wars that shook the country to its core in 2011 and 2013. But given the three years that have passed since the Egyptian army violently overthrew the government of Mohamed Morsi, it is perhaps the first that has had time to pause and reflect, rather than being caught up in the ever-changing cycle of breaking news. (Jehane Noujaim went back to extend her Oscar-nominated doc The Square after people returned to the streets in 2013, while several scenes from Winter of Discontent were shot amid the real-life events of 2011.)

"Things were going so fast," says Diab, 38, who himself — along with many filmmakers — was heavily involved in the popular uprisings. "An idea you had today would have been old by tomorrow."

Diab actually was supposed to contribute to the very first post-revolution film, 18 Days, which bowed in Cannes less than three months after the earth-shattering resignation of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. "But I felt I wasn’t ready to say what I wanted to say," he explains. "It was very hard for me. I just wanted to do justice to the revolution."

Five years on, however, and Clash, set to open Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar on May 12, is the film that encapsulates what he wants to say and a film he says “still lives today,” rather than appearing outdated. Arrested and thrown inside the riot van are 25 Egyptians from all walks of life, as well as contrasting political and religious persuasions. Its precise whereabouts are unclear; viewers only know it’s set somewhere in Cairo during the city-wide clashes between pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators in 2013.

"The biggest thing that came out of the revolution for me was the division of society,” says Diab on his motives. “Usually it’s easy to tell who’s who when there’s a civil war, because they’re different — families were on the same side. But in Egypt, it’s an ideological thing — my father has a point of view, my stepmother has a different point of view, and I have a different point of view than the two of them. Every house in Egypt has been divided. This was probably the most devastating thing for me.”

But what happens when these starkly contrasting views — sometimes as extreme as sanctioning violence against civilians and even massacres — are forced together in a claustrophobic and inescapable scenario? Diab says he wants the film to show every side from each character’s point of view to help underline the idea that “under certain conditions” people can support any action, no matter how appalling.

The result: a film in which he intends to shock the audience by making them sympathize, at some point, with everybody. "The past few years have made me look at history and humanity in a different way," admits Diab. "I don’t judge any human being any more."