Egypt's Oscar Hopeful Endures Blowback Over Secret Production, Censorship
Thanks to social media, Mohamed Diab's Arab Spring drama 'Clash' became a hit despite intense government pushback (it helped that Tom Hanks loved it).
It's not exactly rare for a foreign-language entry to go against the current political regime of the country it's representing (just look at 2014 nominee Leviathan, which was seen widely as a cinematic slap in the face to Putin's Russia). But the manner in which this year's Egyptian entry Clash — set during the still highly contentious 2013 coup — has rattled the cages of its military-controlled homeland surely is something unseen before.
Shot entirely in the back of a police van, Clash takes place amid one of the many violent street protests that erupted in Cairo in the summer of 2013 between supporters and opponents of the then-elected Muslim Brotherhood government, an uprising that would help army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sweep into power.
The problem for director Mohamed Diab, however, was that any inclusion of police characters immediately would have been a red flag to Sisi's powerful censorship board (several other films found their filming permits revoked for this very reason). As a result, much of the production was done in secret.
"The plan was: make the film and put all my chips on it getting to a big festival, which would help give it immunity," says Diab.
It worked. Clash opened the Un Certain Regard sidebar in Cannes, earning widespread critical acclaim (THR described it as "powerful and very disturbing"). Even Tom Hanks said how much he loved the film, sending Diab a note — written on a typewriter, of course — congratulating him for creating something that will "go great lengths to enlighten many."
But if you're thinking the film's success and plaudits are what led Egypt to choose it to represent the country in the foreign-language Oscar category, Diab says nothing could be further from the truth.
According to the director, Clash's success irked the ruling elite, resulting in a coordinated — and elaborate — pushback against both him and the film. In addition to a 10-minute segment on the government-owned Egyptian national TV accusing Diab of being a spy, weekly newspaper articles claimed he supported terrorism, the Muslim Brotherhood and even Zionism, and that the film was part of a wider international conspiracy against Egypt.
"The irony was that nobody who wrote about the film had seen it," says Diab.
There were also problems with the distributor, which backed out of releasing the film with just a week to go (Diab suggests someone "got a call"). While another quickly stepped in (albeit with 25 percent less screens now showing the film), there were still no posters in cinemas four days before it was due to hit theaters.
Taking this approach, Diab says, was more effective than simply banning the film, since doing so could have elicited sympathy for his cause and potentially sparked more interest.
"They didn't want to give the film the 'banned' label," he says. "Why ban the film and face an international scandal when they can kill it behind the scenes. That's the new model on the rise, and it's called Egypt."
Despite all the controversy, Clash was a solid hit upon its release in July, topping the Egyptian box office with $225,000 in its first week, outperforming several major Hollywood titles.
Diab credits much of the success to social media. "People invaded the cinemas," he says, claiming that many Egyptians traveled from towns where the film wasn't showing; one even requesting that people go see it as his 50th birthday present.
However, the controversy didn't end there.
Many went to see Clash assuming it would be subversive, but because of its attempt to humanize each side of the civil war — including, in some scenes, the police — fresh rumors began spreading that it was actually government propaganda. Fueling these reports was an order from the censorship board that a line be added before the intro saying that everything that happened in the film was the fault of the Muslim Brotherhood (the military regime's chief opposition).
These rumors, stresses Diab, were what the authorities jumped upon for a final act to undermine the film: backing Clash's submission for Oscars consideration.
"What helped spread this [propaganda] theory the most was picking the film for the Oscars," he says, adding that the head of the censorship board showed everyone that he had voted for it despite there being a secret ballot. "[This] basically said that the state wasn't against the film and it was just me fabricating the whole thing — a brilliant move, I have to say."
Given the Egyptian government's growing stranglehold of the local media and creative sectors, Diab says his filmmaking options — like those of several other major names who have stepped out of line — are currently limited.
But his experience has, at the very least, given him an idea for a future project.
"One day, I'm going to make a film about what happened with Clash."
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.