I remember once watching a television show. That was a long time ago. The show was about war, about the war in Chechnya. It featured a woman holding a baby in her arms and saying something with tears in her eyes. There were ruins in the background, shattered houses and smoke, smoke that consumed the entire background. “I never thought it could happen… I never thought that it would happen”, murmured the woman. “I thought war was far away. I thought it would always remain far, somewhere else, on TV.” The woman’s face resurfaced in my mind with a particular ferocity in 2008 when Georgia, my country, was being bombed; when war as seen on the television screen came close, too close to me.
Mohamed Diab’s film Clash (Eshtebak) took me back to the times of war, to the civil war, experiencing the same hideous feeling of helplessness as years ago, back at my own home. The Egyptian film was a doubtless favourite at the Kerala International Film Festival (IFFK). Clash had premiered as opening film of Cannes Film Festival’s “Un Certain Regard” program, and garnered both the award of Best Film and the Audience Prize at Kerala.
The year is 2013, times of upheavals. Only two years have passed since the Egyptian Revolution. The country has a new government, but people are set against it, too. It’s the period when tens of thousands protestors gather at Tahrir Square over 24 hours; confused citizens cloister themselves under the divided political wings; police, regardless of age and gender, fight everyone with its own methods in order to “keep peace”.
The whole film takes place in an eight-square- meter police van. The film starts featuring a truck, a square metal construction illuminated over the sides by a light penetrating through a narrow lattice.
The truck gradually fills up with people: an Associate Press journalist and photographer are first to enter. They seem suspicious of the police, who immediately put them in the van. Next enter people whom the journalist asks for help through the narrow rear window, when these people, hearing the word “American”, start casting stones at the car, taunting “spy” and “traitor”. Finally, supporters of Muslim Brotherhood, whom the police encounter when raiding one of the rallies, find themselves in the same truck. Chaos, cacophony… a politically polarized society, people opposed to each other, each other’s enemies are stuck on eight square meters. What could be more scary than that? The truck resembles a beast that is out on a hunt, collecting rebels, protestors, people who seem suspicious to the police in the streets. That’s how the protagonists get together: childhood mates and youngster DJs Mans (Ahmed Malek) and Fisho (Hosny Sheta); the family of nurse Nagwa (Nelly Karim), her husband Hosam (Tarek Abdel Aziz) and their teenage son Faris (Ahmed Dash); 14-year- old Aisha (May Elghety) covered in a hijab with her elderly father; and many more. They are very different from each other by their worldview and social status; however, they make up a microcosm in that eight-square- meter metal monster.
Isolated between four walls, they sometimes punch each other, fight, take turns in making calls with a phone hidden in the socks or talk about hair loss. To calm them down, the police either splash water at them or the group, sitting side by side, sing. This happens when they manage to survive an asphyxiating gas that is thrown in the van. Watching these people, hearing their conversations, you figure out that there are no winners or losers. Everyone is a victim in this story; everyone’s lives are predestined from the start.
The van rarely stops; only when there’s shooting outside or protestors from one wing or another cast stones at it. And that’s when people in the van start shouting, claiming that they are their supporters! Pleading not to shoot! Only when the Muslim Brotherhood besiege them, and only after long-time shooting when the police seize a sniper, they silently watch through the metal lattice how a person is being pelted. Those who do not watch listen. The powerful, dull noises of assault stop at some point. The police leave a half-dead person in the street and depart. Where to? No one knows. They just move forward.
Ruthless scenes are smoothed by distinctively picturesque personalities or sudden bouts of humour of some characters of the film. During an hour and a half, you watch the journey of these people, completely unfamiliar to each other; you watch a day, a month, or maybe even a year spent in this suffocating, claustrophobic, fear-infusing space, and you feel that you have been swaying with them on Cairo’s streets without tarmac; you experience the heat with them in this red-hot sarcophagus. There is no “spectator” in Diab’s film. You are inside, with those people, in these eight-square meters.
You can sense everything at once and you can sense it greedily – sadness, love, lies, hopelessness, fear, death. It’s like a rollercoaster of emotions, where every feeling strikes you simultaneously, with the same poignancy.
And it does not matter at all on whose side you are. This is war. This is a crowd. And the crowd always asks for a victim. It needs blood.
The finale does not let you utter a word. You only remember the van that ran into the crowd, the night, the unbearable howling of the crowd and green laser lights that illuminate the faces of the terrified people confined like animals in the van, faces that have turned gray from fear. You remember, how the van was circling and how slowly its heavy metal doors were opened. The crowd asks for a victim.
The pace of Diab’s film does not let you exhale even for a moment. The brilliant performance of the cast and the “live” camera that breathes and moves with you drags us into a claustrophobic whirlpool with improbable speed. And finally: Scraps. First an X, then an O and then X again, gradually appear on a graph composed of four lines. This small part of the van’s side can perhaps be discerned only thrice in the film. Regardless of shootings, of buzzing bullets, water splashes or asphyxiating gas, the player moves in its empty cubes. But there are no winners and no losers. You see an unfinished game on the wall of the upended van.
Edited by Birgit Beumers
© FIPRESCI 2016