'Clash' ('Eshtebak'): Cannes Review

Eshtebak 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Powerful and very disturbing.

The failure of the Egyptian revolution leads to the horrific cacophony of civil war.

Set in 2013, two years after the Egyptian revolution, Clash is director Mohamed Diab’s darkly frightening vision of the lawlessness and chaos into which the country has descended. After the ousting of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime, the stakes are still life and death, but the battle has degenerated into a ferocious free-for-all pitting revolutionaries against Islamic fundamentalists and both of them against the army. They slug it out in the allegorical hell of a maxi police van as the tension mounts with each new arrival and turn of events.

Remarkably, the film doesn’t take sides. This in itself raises it above a purely political discussion in favor of a sweeping criticism of prejudice and inhumanity. Yet it will be remembered as one of the most telling depictions of modern Egypt yet filmed. Opening Cannes' Certain Regard section, this well-made drama should generate enough word-of-mouth to find audiences in many Eurolands

Running the gamut from social comedy to actioner to war movie, Clash is an original, often quite disturbing experience to watch. From beginning to end, all the action takes place within the claustrophobic confines of the van, where warring protestors of all factions are thrown together and at each others' throats. Outside, through the barred windows, they helplessly observe the full-blown civil war taking place on the streets around them. The audience has the sensation of being a prisoner, too, caught unawares in a deadly squabble that grows in volume and intensity as the film goes on.

Like Diab’s first feature, Cairo 678, which follows three women who exact revenge on their sexual harassers, this is a concept movie, one it would have been easy to make drab and theatrical. Such is not the case, but effort is required. Once it becomes apparent that there will be no getting out of the van, the viewer is forced to get acquainted with some 20-odd characters who are not all readily distinguishable, especially the young men.

The first to be loaded by angry, black-uniformed police are an Egyptian-American journalist for the AP and the freelance photographer working with him. Sympathy for the reporter soon wears thin as his arrogance comes out, along with his dangerous insistence on using a spyware-style camera in his watch.

A standout is Nelly Karim (who played the rich woman in Cairo 678) as a Mother Courage figure who leaps on the van when her husband and teenage son are arrested. A trained nurse, she gruffly lends her expertise to bandaging wounds later on.

The other woman aboard is the dignified young Aisha (Mai El Ghaity), wrapped in gray Islamic garb from head to foot, who has gone to demonstrate with her aged father. Both women are determined to make their voices heard and earn the grudging respect of the generally uncivilized men.

About half the group have been picked up demonstrating for the revolution, and the other half for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose democratically elected president Morsi has just been deposed, by popular demand, by the army. But even within these groups there are factions; the Muslims, for example, are split into card-carrying Brotherhood members and second-class supporters. Some are more violent than others, and a few are ready to cut the throat of their perceived enemies. In this cross-section of Egyptian society, there even seem to be Christians and Jews.

The common denominator is their anger against the political and social chaos around them. Emotions run dramatically high, underlined by the nervous, handheld camera forced to film in close quarters and rapid-fire editing. But thankfully there are lighter, personal moments, too, when political and religious convictions take a back seat to bodily needs and human compassion.

The film has a disorienting lack of structure that leaves the door open for virtually any story twist, and there are many unexpected variants. A dangerous encounter with a sniper on a rooftop who sprays the van with bullets sends the tension soaring, but ends in a sickening murder. When the van is hijacked by a Muslim, there are mixed emotions indeed.

The closing scenes are exciting and harrowing. A highway underpass turns into the scene of hand-to-hand combat, exploding grenades and tear gas, all lit by the alien light of green laser beams. The concluding scene is almost indescribable in its animal-like ferocity and horror.

Production companies: Film Clinic, Sampek Productions, EMC Pictures, Arte France Cinema, Niko Films

Cast: Nelly Karim, Hany Adel, Tarek Abdel Aziz, Mai El Ghaity, Mohaem El Sebaey, Ahmed Malek, Ahmed Dash, Husni Sheta, Aly Eltayeb, Amr El Kady, Mohamed Abd El Azim

Director: Mohamed Diab

Screenwriters: Khaled Diab, Mohamed Diab

Producers: Moez Masoud, Mohamed Hefzy, Eric Largesse

Executive producers:  Jamal Al Dabbous, Daniel Ziskind

Director of photography: Ahmed Gabr

Production designer: Hend Haidar

Editor: Ahmed Hafez

Music: Khaled Dagher

Casting: Marwa Gabriel

World sales: Pyramide International

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Certain Regard)

98 minutes