It was a clash of ideals. It was a clash of beliefs. It was a clash between the classes. But most importantly it was a clash between humanity and barbarism. The recently concluded Egyptian Revolution saw wide spread unrest and innumerable deaths across the nation. Director Mohamed Diab was a vocal participant himself during the civil war and transformed his experiences into one of the most prolific humane documentaries ever. ‘Eshtebak (Clash)’ is his second directorial venture and the maker of critically acclaimed ‘Cairo 678’ surpasses himself with his narration of ‘one such day’ during the revolution. ‘Clash’ sets a tough test, pitting humanism against the animalism and makes the audience witness to the grappling brawl between the two parties. The victor, sadly though, doesn’t get to take the spoils.
Mohamed Diab brushes aside petty politics and ideals in his take on the riot stricken period of his nation. He throws in members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military along with a couple of journalists in a cramped truck and closes the door. In this menagerie, there exists people of all ages, regions and religions, and all spewing hatred towards each other. Quite unsurprisingly a brawl erupts between the opposing factions and only a water gun blast can separate them. Bloodshed and gore seemed to be near as the blue police truck squeezed its way past and through several rallies. But Man’s socialistic nature overtook violence and came forward. Ideals and loyalties took a back seat as the warring factions teamed up to fight the common enemies. Diab’s genius fielded the stuffiness of the van and the Egyptian heat to harmonize the inmates as they took turns to come near the open door for air. When a MB sniper was aiming for the truck, the arrested shouted his location to the police without caring for their allegiances. A hand was lent when nature called and the supposed rivals found a way out to help a young girl answer it without shaming her. A Muslim Brother’s forehead was sliced open in an earlier brawl, and the Mother, stepped forward to do her duties as a nurse. An upcoming DJ passed around his cards and an innocent game of tic-tac-toe was being scratched on the steel walls. ‘Order from Chaos’ is never really an option and Diab emphatically points it out without taking any side.
He takes us through the civil war without engaging us in it. Instead we witness humanity unfold itself from the clutches of barbarism and brings in faith. When an old man yells himself hoarse calling out for his son at a neighboring truck packed with revolutionaries, his political rival lends his voice for the same cause. A militant supporter consoles the young girl whose father, arrested for demonstrating against the police, was struck with a stone. Diab instils the claustrophobia in us as the truck swerves its way past several rallies and mobs. We see the war unfolding on the streets through the netted windows and like the inmates are grateful that the door is closed. He never allows us to step out of the truck and pushes us in with a baton blow or a sharp treat from the police officers. This makes us feel every bit of the cramp, every twitch if uneasiness and every gasp for a breath of fresh air along with the clustered Egyptians. We shake in fear as the sniper shoots holes in the walls of the car, duck down our heads as the stones hurl past and cover our noses when a tear gas bomb explodes nearby. Amidst all the strife, Diab gave us several beautiful moments to cherish. The Mother hangs out her son’s wet shirt to dry and the old man tries to pacify a squabbling couple. The young boy and girl unknowingly engage in a game of tic-tac-toe on the walls of the truck. After covering up the windows with their shirts and pulling in an injured police officer, the political rivals laugh at common jokes and share experiences. And these moments are recorded in a tiny watch camera which was earlier the reason for a squabble between the journalists and Egyptians. That watch remains the sole witness to the triumph of humanity and lies broken when barbarism tears its way through in the end.
The opening shot is one of the most precise and innovative ones ever used. Diab, while narrating a historical fact, could have easily gone overboard with the details, and shown flashbacks and stills of the original war. But instead, he chose to fix his camera inside that blue truck and in three short sentences on the screen, tell us the exact background of the Egyptian Revolution. The van strikes an ominous note from the very beginning and slowly gets filled with the people, making us more and more claustrophobic by the minute. Even in the limited environment for camera movement and artificial light, Diab and cinematographer Ahmed Gabr gave us sublime imagery worthy of a classic pastoral poetry. The filtering sunlight through the netted windows seemed to add a heavenly glow on the Mother’s face. The sweaty faces and the eyes wrought with tension were captured immaculately on camera. The laser lights have been used to a great effect, marking out the terror like an approaching fleet armed with light sabers. The ending is gruesome and horrific, when barbarism breaks through the shackles set by humanity. As each inmate is dragged out to be lynched by a Muslim Brother mob, the truck flips over and the trapped cling on to each other. The final shots are of the broken watch camera and the unfinished game of tic-tac-toe, the only remaining witnesses to the unimaginable and magical bond of humanity.
Like the ‘Battle of Algiers’, ‘Clash’ too maintains its neutrality and shows the humanistic nature of Man amidst war. It narrates the horrors of the war in its own somber and unique manner, gifting us another epic piece of war drama. Diab too employed a neo realistic style in this movie, preferring to shoot on location with amateurs with only Nelly Karim as the Mother being a qualified actress. As such, the obvious effect of theatricality and over emotion were thankfully avoided and we were treated to a river of emotions, ebbed and tided by it. The use of environmental sounds during filming is a key component of neo-realism, and ‘Clash’ doesn’t lack of it. The guns fire, the stones whizz past, the tires squeal and the people scream throughout the 90 odd minutes, ringing our heads with this urban cacophony and united us with the raging chaos.
The Academy Awards Committee is becoming a joke of late. It is befuddling to learn that this modern masterpiece had been rejected from their final nomination in the ‘Best Film Category’. Perhaps the stark truth of humanism doesn’t strike them as appealing or sensitive enough to garner a place among the best. ‘Clash’ has to be one of the best made films of the modern era and can put up a stiff competition for the pole position in war movies along with ‘Battle of Algiers’. It might be an overstatement but I was completely swayed by it. It is worth a watch for any film buff. Victory to thee, Humanism.