Egypt Before and After the Revolution

in 54th Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Beat Glur

To make a film in Egypt has been difficult these last years, sometimes impossible. Financing is tricky, because one never knows if the government will reserve money for subsidies in any given year or, if they do, how much will be available. And then, when a film is financed, you never know how critical one can be. All this is, again, very much the same, now, as it was before the revolution.

Two films, of the many from the Middle East, programmed at this year’s film festival Viennale, as part of the selection for the Fipresci-Jury, leapt out. In the Last Days of the City (Akher ayam el madina) from director Tamer El Said, a coproduction between Germany, the UK and the United Arab Emirates, which premiered at this year’s Berlinale in the Forum section, and Clash (Eshtebak) from director Mohamed Diab, a coproduction between France and, again, Germany and the United Arab Emirates, which was first programmed at the Cannes Festival in Un Certain Regard.

In the Last Days of the City, Tamer El Said’s debut feature film, sometimes looks like a documentary. It’s the story of a filmmaker who desperately tries to finish his film, to put together a large quantity of footage, and to find a way to tell his story. But what story? We are in Cairo, in 2009, two years before the Arab Spring in Egypt. The town seems, seen through the filmmaker’s eye, from above a high building, frozen in agony, awaiting the events yet to come. The camera looks down on the streets of Downtown Cairo, before the revolution, the town where the filmmaker was born in 1972, and where he somehow doesn’t seem to belong anymore.

We see protestors against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, while others rally for an Islamist government, we see police beating protestors, workers tearing down an apartment building, and a man hitting a woman in a backyard. But, whatever happens – the filmmaker in the film, presumably Tamer El Said himself – does not seem to take real interest in whatever he sees; he holds his camera steady and keeps filming. In parallel, from interior shots, we learn that the filmmaker is struggling with all sorts of private problems, too: he must leave his apartment, his mother is in the hospital, and his girlfriend has left him. In the Last Days of the City is a slow and quiet, almost silent contemplation of the megacity known as the noisiest, traffic-jammed and most chaotic of all capitals.

The film Clash, the second feature by Mohamed Diab, well known in Cairo for his active role during the 2011 revolution, is an opposite approach to the current situation in Egypt. Clash is loud, noisy, chaotic, aggressive, full of action and with lots of screaming. The film looks as if the town were at war; it is set in 2013, two years after the Egyptian revolution, when Hosni Mubarak was thrown out of office in the lead up to the elections that brought the Muslim Brotherhood, along with President Mohamed Morsi, to power in 2012, only to then be overthrown by the army, led by now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who brought political oppression and media censorship back to Egypt.

Hardly seen before, the film is set entirely inside a police van, empty at first, then gradually filling up with all sorts of people from the street, arrested by the police, starting with an American reporter and his photographer, followed by a Muslim intellectual, an Isis recruit, an imam and his veiled teenage daughter, a nurse with her husband and son, older men and young blokes, and even a policeman who refused to follow orders. Obviously, there is constant action inside the van; those who rally for another revolution on one side and those who want the Muslim Brotherhood back in power on the other.

Since the camera is always inside the van one is inevitably also in the midst of the turmoil. While the tension in the van is constantly high, it is no less dangerous outside the vehicle where; violent demonstrations take place in the streets, with policemen and soldiers brutally beating anyone near them, as tear-gas clouds spread, snipers on rooftops shoot into the crowd; everything is closely watched by the imprisoned group, through the barred windows of the van. Clash is an impressive portrait of today’s Egyptian society in the setup of a classical huit clos, with a convincing cast, followed by a constantly and superbly moving camera. The production is the Egyptian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards.

Edited by Tara Judah