Riots are scary enough, but being locked in a police van in the midst of a riot ups the ante. So Mohamed Diab was asking a lot when he put his cast through the harrowing sequences of “Clash,” the director’s much-anticipated follow-up to “Cairo 678,” yet the full-on immersion has frightening potency on- and off-screen. Set in 2013, just after the Egyptian military toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, the film is entirely shot from within a paddy wagon, where pro-army supporters and Brotherhood members are thrown together in suffocatingly close proximity. Boasting superb camerawork from d.p. Ahmed Gabr and stellar crowd direction, “Clash” might strike some as crossing too often into hysteria, yet this is bravura filmmaking with a kick-in-the-gut message about chaos and cruelty (with some humanity).
Who will see it, and in what manner, is difficult to predict. Arab region distribution is already secured, yet given the Egyptian military dictatorship’s thin skin, it’s unlikely they’ll look kindly on the way the army and police are depicted. Outside the region, viewers unused to the high pitch of local product (i.e., there’s a lot of screaming) may find it tougher going, though France and Germany will be welcoming territories. Otherwise, fests and braver distributors with a feel for targeting more open audiences will find they have a movie that offers much to chew on.
Background is quickly delivered via a few lines of text: in 2011 Hosni Mubarak’s regime was toppled by popular revolution. In 2012 the Muslim Brotherhood was elected to lead the government, but in the following year the army, led by current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, forcibly removed the government and has engaged in a ruthless internal war of oppression ever since (that last bit doesn’t make it into the on-screen text, but just read any reputable news source for corroboration).
“Clash” joins the handful of successful films (“Lifeboat,” “Lebanon”) conceived of in a very limited space: the police truck measured 9.5 square yards (8 square meters), and all the action takes place either inside or is viewed from the van’s openings. Power-happy military police violently haul Egyptian-American AP journalist Adam (Hany Adel) and his photographer Zein (Mohamed El Sebaey) into the paddy-wagon. Confusion outside makes the cops more antsy, and they grab a bunch of demonstrators who technically were on their side, celebrating the toppling of Morsi’s rule. When Brotherhood supporters start throwing stones, they’re also picked up and tossed in, creating a pressure-cooker situation where it becomes hard to tell whether it’s safer inside or out.
At its fullest, the van holds a cross-section of mid-to-low range Egyptian society. Among the secularists, there’s nurse Nagwa (Nelly Karim, also in “Cairo 678”) with her husband Hossam (Tarek Abdel Aziz) and adolescent son Fares (Ahmed Dash). Others are older men swept up in the day’s fervor, or young guys with a yen for diversion rather than genuine political commitments. The Brotherhood side is equally diverse, from hard-core rabble rousers to meticulous organizers, as well as A’isha (Mai El Ghaity) a 14-year-old hijab-wearing spitfire there with her elderly father.
Neither faction is free from petty selfishness or a thirst for mischief, though it’s the Brotherhood’s disciplinary hierarchy, always seeming to disguise ulterior motives, that feels most chilling. There’s even a good cop, Awad (Ahmed Abdel Hameed), a rookie as yet uncorrupted by the system. Diab subtly works in the fact that all these people participated in the 2011 Revolution, when the heady perfume of change filled the air and, for a brief time, much of the population believed that elections could lead to an equitable democracy where opposite sides of the spectrum succeed in holding a functioning government together.
The script has a few weak moments, such as an unnecessary fight between friends Mans (Ahmed Malek) and Fisho (Husni Sheta), which feels too obviously designed to provide an extra source of tension along with a dose of character. Also, there’s no build-up to the turmoil, since the film already begins on that level. Yet there are gentler moments, such as when everyone temporarily comes together over soccer and music.
Those quieter interludes spring mostly from exhaustion: otherwise, the police van finds itself in the middle of one terrifying melee after another, culminating in a finale of brilliantly choreographed pandemonium in which the darkness is furiously bisected by green laser beams that add to the frenzy. Diab’s handling of the crowded interior is a notable achievement, and the way he moves rioting mobs outside the wagon in a fury of relentless, mad movement seems to channel De Mille with its sweep and control.
Gabr’s handheld camerawork significantly contributes to the near-constant feeling of unease, where everything is off-balance and the viewer feels practically as shaken as the characters. Aside from the keen sense of claustrophobia, the lensing captures in horrifying, quick-eyed observation the chaos outside, from a shocking mob stoning early on to a truly petrifying riot on a spaghetti junction flyover. At the end, the message is clear: any sense of national unity has disintegrated, and the escalating violence is driving Egypt over the edge into bedlam.